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'Lacan as a Reader of Hegel' by Slavoj Žižek

[The] question of the termination of an analysis is that of the moment at which the subject's satisfaction is achievable in the satisfaction of all―that is, of all those it involves in a human undertaking. Of all the undertakings that have been proposed in this century, the psychoanalyst's is perhaps the loftiest, because it mediates in our time between the care-ridden man and the subject of absolute knowledge.1

This passage from Rapport de Rome contains in nuce Lacan's program of the early 1950s―a program that every professional philosopher would undoubtedly dismiss as nonsense: namely, to bring together Heidegger (who defines "care" as the fundamental feature of finite Dasein) and Hegel (the philosopher of infinite Absolute Knowledge in which the Universal and the Particular are fully mediated).2 The Lacanian analyst as a figure of Absolute Knowing? Is not this thesis restricted to a specific historical moment (the early 1950s), when Hegel's influence on Lacan (mediated by Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite) was at its peak? Did not Lacan soon move from Hegel to Kant, insisting on the inaccessible ("impossible") character of the Real that forever resists symbolization, on the subject's unsurpassable separation from the cause of its desire? Is not the best description of Lacan's central project that of a critique of pure desire, where the term "critique" is to be understood in its precise Kantian sense: maintaining the gap that forever separates every empirical ("pathological") object of desire from its "impossible" object-cause whose place has to remain empty? And is not what Lacan calls "symbolic castration" this very gap which renders every empirical object unsatisfactory? Indeed, in the following paragraphs of the Rapport de Rome itself, Lacan already outlines the "limits within which it is impossible for our teaching to ignore the structuring moments of Hegel's phenomenology":

But if there is still something prophetic in Hegel's insistence on the fundamental identity of the particular and the universal, an insistence that reveals the extent of his genius, it is certainly psychoanalysis that provides it with its paradigm by revealing the structure in which this identity is realized as disjunctive of the subject, and without appealing to the future.

Let me simply say that this, in my view, constitutes an objection to any reference to totality in the individual, since the subject introduces division therein, as well as in the collectivity that is the equivalent of the individual. Psychoanalysis is what clearly relegates both the one and the other to the status of mirages.3

We are thereby back in familiar waters: Hegelian self-consciousness, the subject of absolute notional self-mediation which supersedes or devours every alterity, versus the Lacanian divided subject of the unconscious, by definition separated from its Cause. It is not enough, however, to reduce Hegel to his grand formulae (the Absolute not only as Substance but also as Subject; the actuality of the rational; Absolute Knowing; the self-canceling force of negativity; etc.) and then to quickly reject him as the most extreme expression of the modern delirium of the total subjective-notional mediation or appropriation of all reality. One should display, apropos Hegel himself, what the author of one of the best books on Hegel, Gérard Lebrun, called the "patience of the notion" (La patience du concept, the book's title): to read Hegel's theoretical practice en détail, in miniature, following all his dialectical cuts and turns. The wager of such an operation is double: it can ground the (only serious) critique of Hegel, the immanent critique that measures him by his own standards, analyzing how he realizes his own program; but it can also serve as a means to redeem Hegel, to unearth the actual meaning of his great programmatic maxims as opposed to the standard understanding of them.


Where then do we stand with regard to Absolute Knowing? When, in his writings around the Rapport de Rome, Lacan himself defines the conclusion of a treatment as the position of Hegelian Absolute Knowing, how are we to read this together with Lacan's insistence on human finitude, on the irreducible future antérieur that pertains to the process of symbolization (every conclusion involves a gesture of precipitation; it never occurs "now," but in a now viewed backwards)? Take the following passage: "What is realized in my history is neither the past definite as what was, since it is no more, nor even the perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior as what I will have been, given what I am in the process of becoming."4 But the same goes for Hegel―when he adopts the position of the "end of history," presenting us with a coherent narrative about the entirety of history, he does not simply look at the past from the present position; although he prohibits philosophy from speculation about the future and restricts it to comprehending what is the case, past and present, the position from which he enacts the final "reconciliation" has a futural dimension of its own, that of a "future perfect" from which the present itself is seen from a minimal distance, in its accomplished form:

It is a present that raises itself, it is essentially reconciled, brought to consummation through the negation of its immediacy, consummated in universality, but in a consummation that is not yet achieved, and which must therefore be grasped as future―a now of the present that has consummation before its eyes; but because the community is posited now in the order of time, the consummation is distinguished from this "now" and is posited as future.5

This "future perfect" is that of accomplished symbolization, which is why, in his Rapport de Rome, Lacan systematically identifies the conclusion of the analytic treatment with Hegelian "Absolute Knowing": the aim of the treatment is to achieve the same "future perfect" of accomplished symbolization. Each day's edition of Le Monde, the most prestigious (and proverbially haughty) French daily newspaper, appears in the early afternoon of the previous day (for example, the issue for July 4 is on sale around 3 p.m. on July 3), as if the editors wanted to signal a simultaneous move of precipitation and delay: they write from eternity, observing events from a point later than that of other daily newspapers caught up in immediate "live" reporting; however, simultaneously, they are able to see the present itself from its immediate future (i.e., in its true potential, not only the way it appears in its chaotic immediacy)―so, you can learn already in the afternoon of July 3 how things look from the perspective of July 4. No wonder Le Monde is accused of arrogance: this coincidence of delay and precipitation effectively betrays its pretense to standing for a kind of "Absolute Knowing," in contrast to its rivals which merely report fleeting opinions.

So when, in his Rapport de Rome, Lacan refers to Absolute Knowing, we should look closely at how he conceives this identification of the analyst with the Hegelian master, and not succumb to the temptation of quickly retranslating Absolute Knowing into the accomplished symbolization. For Lacan, the analyst stands for the Hegelian master, the embodiment of Absolute Knowing, insofar as he renounces all forcing (forçage) of reality and, fully aware that the actual is already in itself rational, adopts the stance of a passive observer who does not intervene directly in the content, but merely manipulates the scene so that the content destroys itself, when confronted with its own inconsistencies. This is how one should read Lacan's indication that Hegel's work is "precisely what we need to confer a meaning on so-called analytic neutrality other than that the analyst is simply in a stupor"6―it is this neutrality which keeps the analyst "on the path of non-action."7 The Hegelian wager is that the best way to destroy an enemy is to leave the field free for him to deploy his potential, so that his success will be his failure, since the lack of any external obstacle will confront him with the absolutely inherent obstacle of the inconsistency of his own position:

Cunning is something other than trickery. The most open activity is the greatest cunning (the other must be taken in its truth). In other words, with his openness, a man exposes the other in himself, he makes him appear as he is in and for himself, and thereby does away with himself. Cunning is the great art of inducing others to be as they are in and for themselves, and to bring this out to the light of consciousness. Although others are in the right, they do not know how to defend it by means of speech. Muteness is bad, mean cunning. Consequently, a true master [Meister"] is at bottom only he who can provoke the other to transform himself through his act.8

The wager of the Hegelian Cunning of Reason thus involves not so much a trust in the power of Reason (we can take it easy and withdraw―Reason will ensure that the good side wins out), as a trust in the power of "unreason" in every determinate agent which, left to itself, will destroy itself: "If reason is as cunning as Hegel said it was, it will do its job without your help."9 The Cunning of Reason thus in no way involves a faith in a secret guiding hand guaranteeing that all the apparent contingency of unreason will somehow contribute to the harmony of the Totality of Reason; if anything, it involves a trust in un-Reason, the certainty that, no matter how well-planned things are, somehow they will go wrong. This is what Lacan meant by his statement that "a letter always reaches its destination": there is no repression without the return of the repressed, every totality-of-meaning is always disturbed by its symptom.

So what about the obvious counter-argument that this reference to Hegel is operative only in the early Lacan, for whom the goal of the psychoanalytic cure is the complete symbolization ("symbolic realization") of symptoms, and no longer for the Lacan who becomes aware of the "barred" big Other? For the Lacan of the 1950s, focused on the symbolic, the success of the analytic treatment relies on the liberating power of "symbolic realization," of listening to and assuming the "I, truth" which "speaks" in and through the unconscious symptoms. In a Hegelian mode, Lacan asserts the link, identity even, between language and death: in language, immediate reality is mortified or idealized in its notional sublation, and insofar as the symbolic order is sustained by death drive "beyond the pleasure-principle," one has to "subjectivize one's own death," to recognize in it the only master to be obeyed, and thereby to get rid of all other master figures.10 The late Lacan, now focused on the Real, introduces the irreducible tension between the symbolic and the real of death: "It is possible that all language is made [to enable us] not to think death which, effectively, is the least thinkable thing."11 Far from being the operator of death, language is here conceived as a defense against―a screen protecting us from―the confrontation with death.12 Since this tension is irreducible, the goal of analysis is no longer Lacan's version of Hegelian Absolute Knowing, namely the ideal of a total symbolization in which the subject gets rid of its imaginary ego; it is now its very opposite (as deployed in the seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis)―the subject's heroic "forcing" of the symbolic prohibition, his or her confrontation with the "Black Sun" of the Real Thing.

Lacan's idea of the end or goal of the analytic treatment passes through three main phases which vaguely fit the triad of symbolic, Real, and imaginary: first, the symbolization of the symptoms; then, the violent encounter with the Real; finally, the modest amelioration of our daily psychic economy. Lacan's limitation is clearly discernible in how, in his last decades, he tends to oscillate between two poles which are both "worse," as Stalin would have put it. Sometimes (exemplarily in his reading of Antigone), he conceives of the ethical act as a kind of "forcing," a violent act of transgression which cuts into imaginary and symbolic semblances and makes the subject confront the terrifying Real in its blinding destructive power―such traumatic encounters, such penetrations into the forbidden or damned domain, in Antigone, are called ate, and can only be sustained for a brief moment. These authentic moments are rare; one can only survive them if one soon returns to the safe domain of semblances―truth is too painful to be sustained for more than a passing moment. At other times (especially in his ruminations about the symptom towards the end of his life), Lacan adopts the opposite (but effectively complementary) attitude of wisdom: the analyst never knows what will happen when he pushes analysis too far and dissolves the analysand's symptoms too radically―one can get more than one expected, a local interpretive intervention into a particular symptomal formation can destabilize the subject's entire symbolic economy and bring about a catastrophic disintegration of his world. The analyst should thus remain modest and respect appearances without taking them too seriously; they are ultimately all we have, all that stands between us and the catastrophe. It is easy to see how these two stances complement each other: they rely on a (rather Heideggerian) image of human life as a continuous dwelling in "inauthentic" semblances, interrupted from time to time by violent encounters with the Real. (What this entire field encompassing the two stances excludes is the Christian "work of love," the patient work of continuous fidelity to the encounter with the Real.) This modest approach of merely "making life a little bit easier," of diminishing suffering and pain, forgetting about capitalized Truth, makes the late Lacan almost a Rortyan, and clearly reverses his earlier fidelity to the biblical prescription:

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear for clothing?" For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:30–4)

Lacan often refers to these lines in order to denigrate healing as the primary goal of psychoanalytic treatment: health comes par surcroît―in addition or in excess, and by itself, as an unintended bonus. Insofar as health concerns the organism and its homeostasis, not Truth, its status is pathological in the Kantian sense, so that Lacan's motto can also be expressed in terms of focusing on ethical duty and ignoring utilitarian concerns: do your duty, and happiness and the Good will take care of themselves. There are many variations of this attitude, best rendered by the saying "Take care of the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves," which should be inverted into: Take care of the sounds (signifiers), and the sense (signified) will take care of itself. Lacan aims at the heroic stance of "Take care of the truth, and the healing will take care of itself": confront the Truth, risk everything, ignore the consequences, and health will come par surcroît … In short: confront the Real, and reality will take care of itself. Do not compromise your desire, and your needs and demands will be provided for.

There is, however, a fundamental ambiguity which pertains to this attitude: does it mean that one should ignore health and focus on the essential, on the patient's articulation and assumption of the Truth of his or her desire, or does it mean, in a more refined way, that psychic health is "essentially a by-product"? In the latter case, health remains the true goal of the treatment, the point is simply that it is counter-productive, self-destructive even, to make it a direct goal―one should work on other things and count on health emerging as a by-product. But if this is the case, should we not also invert the motto accordingly: take care of the pathological reality, and the Real will take care of itself? Be modest, try to help the patient by easing his suffering, and the Truth will emerge by itself?

Furthermore, this biblical formula can also be considered a denial of the unconscious: "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you"―by whom? By God, who will do the work behind the scenes, in the same way He "clothes the grass of the field."13 Lacan's thesis that "God is unconscious" is endowed here with a new meaning: do your duty, and God will be the mole, the agent of that subterranean unconscious "weaving of the spirit" which will create the conditions for my act to succeed. In other words, does Lacan himself not rely here on some kind of Cunning of Reason which will help the patient achieve health without directly looking for it?


The mode of appearance of this Cunning of Reason is irony, which for Hegel lies at the very core of dialectics: "All dialectics lets hold that which should hold, treats it as if it fully holds [lässt das gelten, was gelten soll, als ob es gelte"], and, in this way, it lets it destroy itself―the general irony of the world."14 With his method of questioning, Socrates merely pushes his opponent-partner to make his abstract idea more concrete ("what do you mean by justice, by happiness …?"), and, in this way, lets him reveal the inconsistency of his position and lets this position destroy itself. The method does not impose external standards onto an idea, it measures the idea by its own standards and lets it destroy itself through its own self-explication. When Hegel writes that womankind is "the everlasting irony of the community,"15 does he thereby not assert the feminine character of irony or dialectics?16 What this means is that the very presence of Socrates, his questioning attitude, transforms the speech of his partner into prosopopoeia:

When the participants in a conversation are confronted with Socrates, their words all of a sudden start to sound like quotes and clichés, like borrowed voices; the participants are confronted with the abyss of what authorizes them in their speech, and the moment they try to rely on the usual supports of authorization, authorization fails. It is as if an inaudible echo of irony adds itself to their speech, an echo which hollows out their words and their voice, and their voice appears as borrowed and expropriated.17

Recall the proverbial scene of a man making a speech in front of his wife, boasting of his great exploits, evoking high ideals, etc., and his wife silently observing him with a barely concealed mocking smile―her silent presence has the effect of ruining the pathos of his speech, of unmasking him in all his misery. It is in this sense that, for Lacan, the Socratic irony announces the subjective position of the analyst: does not the same hold also for the analytic session? Recall Umberto Eco's analysis of Casablanca, where he draws attention to a strange habit of the Resistance hero Victor Laszlo: in every scene, he orders a different drink, a Pernod, a cognac, a whisky. But why? Is this to be read as an indication that, beneath the image of a heroic anti-fascist fighter, there dwells a refined, decadent hedonist? No: it is simply that the scriptwriters did not treat Victor Laszlo as a psychologically consistent personality, but as a composite of multiple clichés. And it is the same in subjective reality: the mysterious "depth of personality" has to be demystified as the illusory effect of prosopopoeia, of the fact that the subject's discourse is a bricolage of fragments from different sources.

The status of prosopopoeia in Lacan changes radically with the shift in the status of the analyst from being the stand-in for the "big Other" (the symbolic order) to being the "small other" (the obstacle which stands for the inconsistency, failure, of the big Other). The analyst who occupies the place of the big Other is himself the medium of prosopopoeia: when he speaks, it is the big Other who speaks (or, rather, keeps silence) through him; in the intersubjective economy of the analytic process, he is not just another subject, he occupies the empty place of death. The patient talks, and the analyst's silence stands for the absent meaning of the patient's talk, the meaning supposed to be contained in the big Other. The process ends when the patient can himself assume the meaning of his speech. The analyst as the "small other," on the contrary, magically transforms the words of the analysand into prosopopoeia, de-subjectivizing his words, depriving them of the quality of being an expression of the consistent subject and his intention-to-mean. The goal is no longer for the analysand to assume the meaning of his speech, but for him to assume its non-meaning, its nonsensical inconsistency, which implies, with regard to his own status, his de-subjectivization, or what Lacan calls "subjective destitution."

Prosopopoeia is defined as "a figure of speech in which an absent or imaginary person is represented as speaking or acting." The attribution of speech to an entity commonly perceived to be unable to speak (nature, the commodity, truth itself …) is for Lacan the condition of speech as such, not only its secondary complication. Does not Lacan's distinction between the "subject of the enunciation" and the "subject of the enunciated" point in this direction? When I speak, it is never directly "myself" who speaks―I have to have recourse to a fiction which is my symbolic identity. In this sense, all speech is "indirect": "I love you" has the structure of: "my identity as lover is telling you that it loves you."18 The implication of prosopopoeia is thus a weird split of which Robert Musil was aware: the "man without properties" (der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) has to be supplemented with properties without man (Eigenschaften ohne Mann), without a subject to whom they are attributed.

There are two correlative traps to be avoided here, the rightist and the leftist deviations. The first, of course, is the pseudo-Hegelian notion that this gap stands for a "self-alienation" which I should strive to abolish ideally and then fully assume my speech as directly my own. Against this version, one should insist that there is no I which can, even ideally, assume its speech "directly," by-passing the detour of prosopopoeia. Wearing a mask can thus be a strange thing: sometimes, more often than we tend to believe, there is more truth in the mask than in what we assume to be our "real self." Think of the proverbial shy and impotent man who, while playing an interactive video game, adopts the screen identity of a sadistic murderer and irresistible seducer―it is all too simple to say that this identity is just an imaginary supplement, a temporary escape from his real-life impotence. The point is rather that, since he knows that the video game is "just a game," he can "reveal his true self," do things he would never do in real-life interactions―in the guise of a fiction, the truth about himself is articulated. Therein lies the truth of a charming story like Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask: what if we invert the topic according to which, in our social interactions, we wear masks to cover our true face? What if, on the contrary, in order for us to interact in public with our true face, we have to have a mask hidden somewhere, a mask which renders our unbearable excess, what is in us more than ourselves, a mask which we can put on only exceptionally, in those carnivalesque moments when the standard rules of interaction are suspended? In short, what if the true function of the mask is not to be worn, but to be kept hidden?19

The opposite trap is to elevate "that through which I speak" into an authentic site of Truth, so that "something in me deeper than myself, the Truth itself, speaks through me." This is the Jungian version, involving a distinction between my Ego and the Self, a much broader ground of my subjectivity, with the task being to progress from my Ego to my true Self. Against this version, one should assert that that which speaks through me is fundamentally a lie.20 The temptation here, of course, is to say that it is not the other through whom I speak, but that the Other itself speaks through me: the ultimate prosopopoeia is the one in which I myself am the other, the means used by X to speak. Does, then, the key dialectical reversal apropos prosopopoeia go from the subject talking through others to the subject itself as the site through which the Other speaks? The shift from me speaking through some figure of the Other to the I itself as prosopopoeia? From "I cannot tell the truth about myself directly; this most intimate truth is so painful that I can only articulate it through another, by adopting the mask, talking through the mask, of another entity," to "truth itself is talking through me"? This reversal involves the dialectical shift from predicate to subject―from "what I am saying is true" to "truth is talking through me." And, furthermore, is not this shift also clearly sexualized? Woman is man's prosopopoeia: she is man's symptom, she has no substance of her own, she is a mask through which man speaks (more precisely, as Otto Weininger demonstrated, a mask through which the fallen nature of man speaks). Woman cannot relate to truth as an inherent value, she cannot tell the truth; however, truth can speak in or through her. The reversal from "I speak the truth" to "I, the truth, speak" occurs with woman's identification with the truth: men tell the truth, while in woman, truth itself speaks.

The "primordial prosopopoeia" is effectively that of the symbolic order itself, of the subject (constituting itself through) assuming a symbolic mandate―or, as Lichtenberg put it in one of his aphorisms: "There is a transcendent ventriloquism that makes people believe that something that was said on earth came from heaven." In one of the Marx brothers' films, Groucho, caught telling a lie, answers angrily: "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?" This apparently absurd logic renders perfectly the functioning of the symbolic order in which the symbolic mask matters more than the direct reality of the individual who wears it. It involves the by now familiar structure of what Freud called "fetishistic disavowal": "I know very well that things are the way I see them, that the person in front of me is a corrupt weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge, so that when he speaks, it is the law itself which speaks through him." So, in a way, I really do believe his words, not my eyes. This is where the cynic who believes only hard facts falls short: when a judge speaks, there is in a way more truth in his words (the words of the institution of law) than in the direct reality of the person of judge; if one limits oneself to what one sees, one simply misses the point. This paradox is what Lacan aims at with his les non-dupes errent (those in the know err): those who refuse to let themselves get caught in the symbolic fiction and believe only what they see with their own eyes are those who err most. What the cynic misses here is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way it structures our (experience of) reality. A corrupt priest preaching on goodness may be a hypocrite, but if people endow his words with the authority of the Church, they may inspire them to perform good deeds.

Here one should take note of a certain paradox: it is precisely when "I speak"―when I perceive myself as the agent of my speech―that, effectively, "the big Other speaks through me," that I am "spoken," since my speech acts are totally regulated by the symbolic order in which I dwell. And, conversely, the only way for me to bring my subjective position of enunciation into words is to let myself be surprised by what I say, to experience my own words as a case of "it speaks in/through me." This is what happens in the case of a symptom: in it, my true subjective position finds a way to articulate itself against my will and intention. The opposition is thus not directly between "I speak" and "the Other speaks through me," since these are the two sides of the same coin. When "it speaks" through me, it is not the big Other which speaks: the truth that articulates itself is the truth about the failures, gaps, and inconsistencies of the big Other.21

The Talmud says: "The one who quotes properly brings redemption to the world." Is this not literally the formula of Stalinist argumentation? Freud also emphasizes that the unconscious in dreams can only quote―dreams are like a parrot, they are the ultimate prosopopoeia, just repeating speech fragments qua remnants of the day, while also, of course, submitting them to cruel cuts and rearrangements in order to squeeze its message into them. (The underlying premise of quotation: the big Other is always there, everything is already written, so all that we can say should, if true, be supported by a quotation.) This―and not the ridiculous notion of some mysterious Spirit secretly pulling the strings to guarantee a happy outcome―is what the Hegelian "Cunning of Reason" amounts to: I hide nothing from you, I renounce all "hermeneutics of suspicion," I do not impute any dark motives to you, I just leave the field free for you to deploy your potential and thus destroy yourself. There is more than superficial word-play in the resonance between List der Vernunft (Cunning of Reason) and Lust der Vernunft (Pleasure of Reason): the Cunning of Reason only works, the subject only allows itself to get caught in the trap of reason, if it is bribed by some surplus-pleasure, and it is this surplus that is brought out by the analytic stance.

It is easy to discern here the unexpected proximity of the Hegelian master to the analyst, to which Lacan alludes: the Hegelian Cunning of Reason means that the Idea realizes itself in and through the very failure of its realization. It is worth recalling the sublime reversal found in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations: when, as a young man, Pip is described as a "fellow of great expectations," everybody perceives this as a prediction of his future worldly success. At the novel's end, however, when Pip abandons London and returns to his modest childhood community, we realize that he lived up to the prediction that marked his life only by finding the strength to leave behind the vain thrill of London's high society, and thereby authenticate the notion of his being a "man of great expectations." Furthermore, as befits a Hegelian novel, the ending of Great Expectations is deeply ambiguous in a way which evokes the radical ambiguity of the Hegelian reconciliation―here is the novel's last paragraph, describing Pip and Estella meeting again at the ruins of Satis House:

"We are friends," said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench. "And will continue friends apart," said Estella. I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

How are we to read the last words, "I saw no shadow of another parting from her"? Do they mean that Estella and Pip will never part, that they will stay together forever, or that it is only at this moment that Pip did not (or could not) see the shadow of a future parting? Even more interestingly, we now know that this ending was a revised second version: in the original ending, Estella has remarried and Pip remains single; following the advice of certain friends (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins), Dickens wrote a more upbeat ending, suggesting that Estella and Pip would marry. Many critics not only found this new ending a concession to popular taste; some even proposed their own new ending―here is G. B. Shaw's version, describing what happens after Estella and Pip run into one another and then part again: "Since that parting, I have been able to think of her without the old unhappiness; but I have never tried to see her again, and I know I never shall." There is an ambiguity here again: "I know I never shall"―shall what? See Estella again or try to see her again (which leaves open the prospect of an unpremeditated encounter)? Another attempt was made by Douglas Brooks-Davies, who resolved the ambiguity of Dickens's second ending by opting for the pessimistic version: when Estella and Pip are leaving the garden together, "the evening sunlight of the moment when I left Satis holding Estella's hand was so bright that it banished all shadows―even the metaphorical shadow of the parting that we were soon (and permanently) to endure." However, this dispelling of the ambiguity does not work because, in a way, it is superfluous, it says too much―in an exact parallel with Hegel's "Absolute Knowing," where we also see "no shadow of another parting from it": it, of course, includes its own historicity; however, to say this explicitly is already to say too much and involves a regression to historicism. The denouement of Great Expectations thus relies on a kind of Hegelian reflexivity: what changes in the course of the hero's ordeal is not only his character, but also the very ethical standard by which we measure his character.

In his review of Badiou's Ethics, Terry Eagleton wrote:

There is a paradox in the idea of transformation. If a transformation is deep-seated enough, it might also transform the very criteria by which we could identify it, thus making it unintelligible to us. But if it is intelligible, it might be because the transformation was not radical enough. If we can talk about the change then it is not full-blooded enough; but if it is full-blooded enough, it threatens to fall outside our comprehension. Change must presuppose continuity―a subject to whom the alteration occurs―if we are not to be left merely with two incommensurable states; but how can such continuity be compatible with revolutionary upheaval?22

The properly Hegelian solution to this dilemma is that a truly radical change is self-relating: it changes the very coordinates by means of which we measure change. In other words, a true change sets its own standards: it can only be measured by criteria that result from it. This is what the "negation of negation" is: a shift of perspective which turns failure into true success. And does the same not go for the Freudian Fehlleistung (acte manqué)―an act which succeeds in its very failure? Robert Pippin is right to emphasize that "the realization that only in such 'failure' is there success (success at being Geist) is an achievement like no other" in the history of philosophy.23 This is where the standard reproach to Hegel (that he fails to fully confront negativity, failure, collapse, etc., since there is always a mechanism of redemption built into the dialectical process which guarantees that the utter failure will magically be converted into its opposite) falls short: the story of the Hegelian dialectical reversal is not the story of failure as a blessing in disguise, as a (painful but necessary) step or detour towards the final triumph that retroactively redeems it, but, on the contrary, the story of the necessary failure of every success (of every direct project or act), the story of how the only "success" the subject can gain is the reflexive shift of perspective which recognizes success in failure itself.


Such a shift also lies at the very heart of the Hegelian relationship between lies and truth. Winston Churchill was right when he characterized truth not as something we search for, but as something upon which, occasionally, we accidentally stumble: "Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened." A psychologically intuitive person may be able to recognize immediately―from a slight change of tone or of gesture―when somebody has started to lie; but perhaps what one needs much more is someone able to recognize when, in the generalized babble of daily communication, a person stumbles upon truth (or, rather, when the truth starts to talk in or through the babble)―not, of course, factual truth, but subjective truth, which can also (even as a rule does) express itself in the guise of a (factual) lie. The reason is that, at their most radical, lies are not a simple denial of truth; they serve a much more refined protective function: to render the truth palpable, tolerable. During World War II, Churchill quipped: "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." And since, in a way, life itself, especially love, is permanent warfare, lying is what keeps the world together. Joseph de Maistre wrote: "if we want to teach an error, we should … always begin with a truth."24 De Maistre had in mind how even the most cruel sacrificial rituals of pagan religion implicitly harbor a correct insight into the efficacy of sacrifice brought out in its true form by Christianity. However, from a Hegelian standpoint, we should invert this statement: "if we want to teach a truth, we should always begin with an error."

The basic strategy of Brecht's celebrated adaptive cunning, exemplified by his behavior during his interview by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), is to "lie with (partial) truth": while all Brecht's answers to the Committee were factually true, he tailored the facts to create a false overall impression (in short: that he was not a dedicated communist propagandist, but just an anti-fascist democrat). The principle underlying Brecht's strategy is best expressed in his cynical reply to the reproach that he acted like a coward: "My profession is not a hero, but a writer." The problem here, of course, is that being a hero―that is, having courage―is precisely not a profession, but a characteristic that can be displayed in any situation where what is at stake is what Badiou calls fidelity to a Truth-Event. Brecht's stance should be contrasted to that of Dashiell Hammett, who found himself in a similar predicament at the same time: called to testify before the HUAC, he was asked if he really was a trustee for a fund that the Communist Party of the USA had organized to protect its persecuted members and sympathizers. The truth was that he knew nothing about the fund, but he was too proud to answer truthfully, since this would have implied that he recognized the authority of the HUAC and accepted the need to defend himself; so he refused to answer (and was duly sent to prison where, after only two weeks, the guards began to address him as "Sir"―proof of the extraordinary power and dignity of his personality). Both Brecht and Hammett lied, but where Brecht lied with (partial) truth, Hammett lied to save his dignity and truthfulness.25 No wonder that Georg Lukács, Brecht's great Marxist opponent, displayed more ethical courage than Brecht when, after the crushing of the Hungarian rebellion at the end of 1956, he was arrested by the Soviets, who offered him freedom on one condition: they had tapes of his phone conversations with the other members of the Imre Nagy government and they knew that he had expressed his disagreement with some of the government's anti-socialist measures―all the Soviets wanted from him was to restate these disagreements publicly. Lukács declined, knowing perfectly well that to state the factual truth under such conditions would have been to lie.

In his first Seminar, Lacan defines error as a habitual embodiment of truth: "as long as the truth will not be revealed in its entirety, that is to say, in all probability till the end of time, it will be in its nature to propagate itself in the guise of error: error is thus a constitutive structure of the revelation of being as such."26 The reference here, of course, is to the Freudian universe in which truth articulates itself as a rupture of the normal or regular flow of our speech or activity: the truth leaks out in the guise of slips of the tongue, failures to act, etc. Lacan wants to draw a strict distinction between this Freudian procedure and the Hegelian dialectic in which truth also arises out of errors, through the self-sublation of the latter: Hegelian truth is the absolute disclosure which can only be formulated at the end of history, when the historical process is fully actualized, while Freudian truth is partial, fragmentary, always just a rupture in the flow of ignorance, never the revealed totality. The problem here is that since psychoanalysis thus lacks the final point of total revelation which would enable it to firmly distinguish truth from error, how can it be sure that the other discourse which the psychoanalytic interpretation discerns beneath the discourse of méprise is not just another discourse of misrecognition? Aware of the problem, for a couple of years Lacan effectively insisted on a homology between psychoanalysis and Hegelian Absolute Knowing: the only difference being that the psychoanalyst is more modest, aware that we cannot ever reach the point of accomplished symbolization/revelation. (Later, Lacan resorted to the classic Freudian answer: the proof of the truth of a psychoanalytic interpretation is its own symbolic efficacy, the way it transforms the subject.) However, such a reading of Lacan as a "weak Hegelian," still faithful to the Hegelian goal and merely postponing indefinitely the final reconciliation, is stricto sensu wrong―that is, wrong with regard to Hegel. In other words, the very notion of Absolute Knowing as accomplished symbolization, the full revelation of Being, etc., totally misses the point of the Hegelian "reconciliation" by turning it into an Ideal to be reached, rather than something that is always already here and should merely be assumed. Hegelian temporality is crucial here: we enact "reconciliation" not by way of a miraculous healing of wounds, and so forth, but by recognizing "the rose in the cross of the present," by realizing that reconciliation is already accomplished in what we (mis)perceived as alienation.

Consequently, Hegel does deal with symptoms―in the sense that every universality in its actualization generates an excess which undermines it. The Hegelian totality is by definition "self-contradictory," antagonistic, inconsistent: the "Whole" which is the "True" (Hegel: "das Ganze is das Wahre") is the Whole plus its symptoms, the unintended consequences which betray its untruth. For Marx, the "totality" of capitalism includes crises as its integral moments; for Freud, the "totality" of a human subject includes pathological symptoms as indicators of what is "repressed" in the official image of the subject. The underlying premise is that the Whole is never truly whole: every notion of the Whole leaves something out, and the dialectical effort is precisely the effort to include this excess, to account for it. Symptoms are never just secondary failures or distortions of the basically sound System―they are indicators that there is something "rotten" (antagonistic, inconsistent) in the very heart of the System. This is why the anti-Hegelian rhetoric which insists on how Hegel's totality misses the details which stick out and destroy its equilibrium misses the point: the space of the Hegelian totality is the very space of the interaction between the ("abstract") Whole and the details that elude its grasp, although they are generated by it. So what if Hegel's thought is not a metaphysics, but a form of pataphysics in Alfred Jarry's sense, a thinking of pathological incidents which inevitably disturb the inner logic of a process?

The paradigmatic case of Understanding, of its "abstract" reasoning, is thus not primarily the isolated analysis of objects and processes, or a blindness to the complex dynamic Whole within which an object is located (even Stalin was well aware of this topic, with his endless variations on the motif of how "everything is connected with everything else"), but rather a blindness to the structural role of symptoms, of excesses and obstacles, a blindness to the productive role of these obstacles. For example, at the level of Understanding, crises appear as obstacles to capitalism's smooth functioning, obstacles that can and should be avoided by the adoption of intelligent economic policies. Likewise, for Understanding, the "totalitarian" character of the communist regimes of the twentieth century appears as a regrettable consequence of "neglecting" the central role of democratic decision-making, not as a necessary feature of the twentieth-century communist project as such. "Understanding" is thus inherently utopian (in the ideological sense of the term): it dreams of, say, a society based on money, but in which money would not be an instrument of fetishistic alienation and exploitation, but would simply mediate the exchange between free individuals; or of a society based on parliamentary democracy which would fully and effectively represent the people's will and so on.

So Hegel "cannot think the symptom" insofar as we understand the Cunning of Reason in its traditional teleological sense, as a hidden rational order controlling historical contingency, manipulatively exploiting particular moments in order to realize its hidden universal goal. However, the moment we take into account the retroactivity of universal necessity―the fact that each "use" of particular moments for some universal goal, as well as this goal itself, emerge retroactively in order, precisely, to "rationalize" the symptomal excess―we can no longer accept the Hegelian Cunning of Reason in its standard sense. In his early, Maoist-phase Theory of Contradiction, Badiou wrote: "To the nothing-new-under-the-sun, the thinking of revolt opposes the ever new insurgent red sun, under the emblem of which the unlimited affirmative hope of rebellious producers engenders ruptures." This upbeat statement is supplemented by a much more ominous-sounding one: "There is the radically New only because there are corpses that no trumpet of Judgment will ever reawaken."27 The shocking brutality of this last statement should not blind us to its truth: if we really want to assert a radical break, we must abandon the Benjaminian notion of retroactive redemption, of a revolutionary act which redeems all past suffering and defeats―as the Christians say, the dead should be left to bury the dead. No Cunning of Reason can retroactively justify present suffering, as in the Stalinist idea, elaborated by Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror, that the good life of the communist future will justify the cruelty of the contemporary revolutionary process.

Robert Pippin is the only thinker today who heroically defines his goal as the promotion of "bourgeois philosophy," that is, the philosophy of legitimizing and analyzing the "bourgeois" way of life centered on the notion of autonomous and responsible individuals leading a safe life within the confines of civil society. The problem, of course, comes back to the skeleton in the closet of every bourgeois society: Pippin as a Hegelian (the US Hegelian) should know that, for Hegel, modern bourgeois society could only have arisen through the mediation of Revolutionary Terror (exemplified by Jacobins); furthermore, Hegel is also aware that, in order to prevent its own death by habituation (immersion in the life of particular interests), every bourgeois society needs to be shattered from time to time by war.

A problem such as "can excesses like Auschwitz be justified, economized, as necessary detours on the road towards a free society, can they be aufgehoben as moments of historical progress?" is, therefore, from a strict Hegelian perspective, badly posed: it presupposes a position of external substantial teleology that is precluded by Hegel. There is no substantial historical Spirit weighing up in advance the costs and benefits of a prospective historical catastrophe (e.g., is the massacre of European Jewry a price worth paying for the unprecedented peace and prosperity of postwar Europe?): it is only actual humans, caught up in a historical process, who generate a catastrophe which can then give birth to new ethico-political awareness, without any claim that this unintended result in any way "justifies" or legitimizes the enormous suffering that led to it. Measured in this way, no historical progress is "worth the price": all one can say is that the ultimate outcome of historical catastrophes is sometimes a higher ethical awareness which one should accept with humility and in memory of the blood spilled on the path to realizing it. Such "blessings in disguise" are never guaranteed in advance, which is why, insofar as a symptom is the point of "irrationality" of the existing totality, a point which cannot be subsumed under any figure of totalizing Reason, we should invert Marx's famous formula of recovering the "rational core" of Hegel's dialectic and boldly propose to recover its irrational core.

But, again, are we not contradicting here Lacan's explicit critique of the Hegelian "Cunning of Reason"? Does not Lacan advocate Marx's "materialist reversal of Hegel": what Hegel cannot think is the radical sense of a symptom which undermines from within any Cunning of Reason? For Marx, the totality of Reason (which asserts its reign through its "cunning") is undermined in its symptom (the proletariat as the "unreason within the domain of Reason," as the non-sense that no cunning can legitimate and/or rationalize). This dimension of the symptom as "the return of truth as such into the gap of a certain knowledge"

is highly differentiated in Marx's critique, even if it is not made explicit there. And one can say that a part of the reversal of Hegel that he carries out is constituted by the return (which is a materialist return, precisely insofar as it gives it figure and body) of the question of truth. The latter actually forces itself upon us … not by taking up the thread of the ruse of reason, a subtle form with which Hegel sends it packing, but by upsetting these ruses (read Marx's political writings) which are merely dressed up with reason.28

Marx "invents the symptom" when he conceptualizes the position of the proletariat as the material "figure and body" which gives body to the "un-reason" of the totality of Reason (the modern Rational State) conceptualized and legitimized by Hegelian Knowledge. Marx thus sees through the Hegelian trick of legitimizing exploitation and other horrors as necessary moments of the progress of Reason (Reason using evil human passions as means to actualize itself), denouncing it as the legitimization of a miserable social reality which is merely "dressed up with reason." As such, the "message" of the symptom is: "Men, listen, I am telling you the secret. I, truth, speak."29 In a symptom, "it speaks," the subject is surprised by it, taken aback, caught with his pants down; a symptom is thus something that cannot be attributed to any subject or agent. The temptation to be resisted here―the very temptation of the Cunning of Reason―is to surmise another meta-Subject or Agent who organizes these apparent failures and mistakes, turning them into steps towards the final Truth. The Cunning of Reason is the desperate wager of trusting in history, the belief that the big Other guarantees its final happy outcome―or, as Lacan put it in his acerbic way:

The discourse of error―its articulation in action―could bear witness to the truth against the apparent facts themselves. It was then that one of them tried to get the cunning of reason accepted into the rank of objects deemed worthy of study. Unfortunately, he was a professor … Remain content, then, with your vague sense of history and leave it to clever people to found the world market in lies, the trade in all-out war, and the new law of self-criticism on the guarantee of my future firm. If reason is as cunning as Hegel said it was, it will do its job without your help.30

A symptom is, on the contrary, that which undermines the big Other, that in which the big Other reveals its gaps, inconsistency, failure, impotence. When Lacan writes, "I, truth, speak," this does not mean that the substantial "big Other" in me speaks, but, on the contrary, that the big Other's failure breaks through. Error is the partial un-truth which can be sublated into a subordinate moment of the truth of Totality, while a symptom is a partial break-through of the repressed truth of the Totality, a truth which belies totality. Lacan here opposes error and mistake (méprise): while, in the Hegelian dialectical process, truth arises through error, in the psychoanalytic process, it arises from a mistake (or, rather, mis-apprehension)―truth says: "Whether you flee from me in deceit or think you can catch me in error, I will catch up with you in the mistake from which you cannot hide."31 When I am in error, I hold as true something that is not true; in a symptom, on the contrary, truth appears in what I hold as least true, most contingent, unworthy of universality. Again, truth says:

I wander about in what you regard as least true by its very nature: in dreams, in the way the most far-fetched witticisms and the most grotesque nonsense of jokes defy meaning, and in chance―not in its law, but rather in its contingency. And I never more surely proceed to change the face of the world than when I give it the profile of Cleopatra's nose.32

The implications of such a radical notion of the symptom are much more far-reaching than it may appear: the symptom is not a secondary expression of some substantial content already dwelling deep in the subject―on the contrary, the symptom is "open," coming from the future, pointing towards a content that will only come to be through the symptom.33 Recall Lacan's statement that "woman is a symptom of man"―does this mean that, vulgari eloquentia, a woman comes to ex-sist only when a man selects her as a potential object of libidinal investment? So what is she prior to this investment? What if we conceive the idea of a symptom that pre-exists what it is a symptom of, so that we can consider women as symptoms wandering around in search of something to attach themselves to as symptoms―or even just being satisfied with their role as empty symptoms?34 One can effectively claim that a woman who withdraws from sexual contact with men is a symptom at its purest, a zero-level symptom―a nun, for example, who, in rejecting becoming the symptom of a particular man (her sexual partner), posits herself as the symptom of Christ, the man (ecce homo).

This notion of the paradoxical pre-existence of a symptom can also be given a Benjaminian twist. In the middle of Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" (eleven minutes into it), there is a passage which sounds almost like Bernard Herrmann, a kind of flight into the future; then the standard Romanticism recovers itself. It is really as if Tchaikovsky produced here a symptom in the early Lacanian (or Benjaminian) sense of a message from the future, something that its own time lacked the proper means to hear or understand. (This is how modernism works: what were originally fragments of an organic Whole are autonomized―the same goes for Joan Miró's paintings.) No wonder that this is the music used for the ballet sequence at the end of Torn Curtain―a kind of revenge of Herrmann whose score Hitchcock discarded―a scene in which the "repressed returns." (Did he choose this piece?)35

There is a nice anecdote about a Latin American poet who modified the political tenor of his poetry according to whoever was his most recent mistress: when she was a proto-fascist rightist, he celebrated military discipline and patriotic sacrifice; when he got involved with a pro-communist woman, he started to celebrate guerrilla warfare; later, he moved on to a hippy mistress and wrote about drugs and transcendental meditation. This is what "woman as a symptom of man" means, not merely that a man uses a woman to articulate his message―on the contrary, woman is the determining factor: man orients himself towards his symptom, he clings to it to give consistency to his life. And the Hegelian Cunning of Reason works in a similar way: it is not that Reason is a secret force behind the scenes using human agents for its purposes: there are nothing but agents following their particular purposes, and what they do "auto-poetically" organizes itself into a larger pattern.

But did not Heidegger propose a much more radical critique of the Hegelian Cunning of Reason, in a way which differs radically from Marx's critique (and which enables us to recognize in Marx himself the presence of the Hegelian notion of history as the story of dialectical redemption36)? For the Cunning of Reason to be operative, there is no need to resuscitate any transcendent rational agency; particular contingent finite facts must be accounted for not in terms of any such higher power, but in terms of their own intelligibility, which is the true "infinite" immanent to the finite itself. The contrast with Heidegger's own full assertion of finitude could not be clearer. Heidegger deploys all the consequences of such a radical assertion of finitude, up to and including a series of self-referential paradoxes. His claim is that the ultimate failure, the breakdown of the entire structure of meaning, the withdrawal from engagement and care―in other words the possibility that the totality of Dasein's involvements "collapses into itself; the world has the character of completely lacking significance"37―is the innermost possibility of Dasein, that Dasein can succeed in its engagement only against the background of a possible failure: "the interrelational structure of the world of Care can fail in such a catastrophic way that Dasein will appear not as the world-embedded, open-to-meaning, engaged agent in a shared world that it is, but, all at once as it were, the null basis of a nullity."38 Here Heidegger is not just making the decisionist-existentialist point about how "being a subject means being able to fail to be one," how the choice is ours and utterly contingent, with no guarantee of success.39 His point is rather that the historical totality-of-meaning into which we are thrown is always already, "constitutively," thwarted from within by the possibility of its utmost impossibility. Death, the collapse of the structure of meaning and care, is not an external limit which, as such, would enable Dasein to "totalize" its meaningful engagement; it is not the final quilting point that "dots the i" of one's life span, enabling us to totalize a life story into a consistent, meaningful narrative. Death is precisely that which cannot be included in any meaningful totality, its meaningless facticity is a permanent threat to meaning, its prospect a reminder that there is no final way out.40 The consequence of this is that the choice is not a direct choice between success and failure, between authentic and inauthentic modes of existence: since the very notion that one can successfully totalize one's life within an all-encompassing structure-of-meaning is the ultimate inauthentic betrayal, the only true "success" Dasein can have is to heroically confront and accept its ultimate failure.


The contrast with Hegel is thus striking. If Hegel's underlying axiom is that "the result of an untrue mode of knowledge must not be allowed to run away into an empty nothing"41 (note the prohibitive mode: "must not be allowed to …"!)―i.e., that, through the work of "tarrying with the negative," every outbreak of negativity can be accounted for (rendered intelligible) in a narrative of meaning and thus aufgehoben in an encompassing infinite totality―for Heidegger, it is a formal (a priori) characteristic of Daseins finitude that every meaningful engagement will finally "run away into an empty nothing": all our meaningful engagements are just so many contingent attempts to postpone the inevitable; heroic acts against the background of the ultimate nullity of all human endeavor. Does this critique of Hegel hold up however? On a first approach, it may well appear justified―as Pippin has noted, when, in a famous passage from the Foreword to the Phenomenology, Hegel provides the most outstanding formulation of the reversal of the negative into a higher positivity, of the resurrection of the infinite life after death, he has recourse to a very strange term: "Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical force [Zauberkraft"] that converts it into being."42 Effectively, it is "as if Hegel cannot help giving away his dodge and his own uncertainty with that revealing (most un-Hegelian) word or Freudian slip, Zauberkraft"43―an admission that there is something magical, something like the intervention of a deus ex machina, in the dialectical reversal of the negative into the positive. This is why we need to be very precise in circumscribing this reversal. It is a commonplace about Hegel that he criticized the idea of the Crusades for confounding the possession of the spiritual Truth of Christianity with the possession of the physical site of Christ's tomb, the place of his crucifixion and resurrection. However, here again, the choice is not an immediate one: in order to experience the spiritual Truth of Christianity one has to first occupy the tomb and experience its emptiness―only in this disappointment, through this failure-in-triumph, does one reach the insight that, in order to "live in Christ," it is not necessary to travel to faraway lands and occupy empty tombs, since Christ is already here whenever there is Love between his followers. To recast this experience in the terms of the Rabinovitch joke:

"We are going to Jerusalem to find Christ's tomb and to dwell in the presence of divinity."

"But what you will discover in Jerusalem is that the tomb is empty, that there is nothing to find, that all you have is yourselves, the community of visiting Christians …"

"Well, this community of spirit is the living Christ, and this is what we were really looking for!"

The same goes for the resurrection itself: "Christ will be resurrected!" "But we, his followers who wait for him, see nothing …" "True, you don't see―but what you don't see is that the spirit of this community of yours, the love that bonds you, is the resurrected Christ!" And likewise even more so for the topic of the Second Coming: nothing will "really happen," no God will miraculously appear; people will just realize that God is already here, in the spirit of their collective.

Christopher Nolan's film The Prestige (2006)―a story about the deadly rivalry between two magicians, the lower-class Alfred Borden and the upper-class Robert Angier, in fin de siècle London―can, surprisingly, help us to grasp clearly this "magical" aspect of Hegelian dialectics. The film can be read as an allegory of the struggle for Hegel's legacy between Right and Left Hegelians. The two magicians compete over who can deliver the best performance of the "Transported Man" trick; Borden, the first to perform it, disappears into a box, bounces a ball to another box across the stage, and instantly reappears within the second box to catch the ball. Blackmailed into revealing the source of his trick to Angier, Borden gives him one clue, the name of an inventor: "Tesla." (This, we later learn, is a lie: Borden simply used his twin brother to replace him.) Angier travels to Colorado Springs to meet Nikola Tesla and learn the secret of Borden's illusion. Tesla constructs a teleportation machine, but the device fails to work. Angier then learns from Borden's notebook that he has been sent on a wild-goose chase. Feeling he has wasted his money, he returns to Tesla's lab and discovers that the machine can in fact create and teleport a duplicate of any item placed in it. When Tesla is forced to leave Colorado Springs, Angier is left with the machine. In a letter, Tesla warns Angier to destroy it. Angier refuses to do so and returns to London to begin a final set of 100 performances with his new act, "The Real Transported Man," in which he disappears under huge arcs of electricity and "teleports" fifty yards from the stage to the balcony in a second. Borden attends Angier's performance and is baffled; he slips backstage and finds Angier inside a water tank, with a padlock on the latch that prevents his escape. At the film's end, the mortally wounded Angier reveals his secret to Borden: each time he disappeared during the illusion, he fell through a trap door into the tank and drowned; the machine created a duplicate who teleported to the balcony and basked in the applause. Angier says he suffered to become great―a philosophy Borden thought Angier had never learned.

The class rivalry between the upper-class Angier and the lower-class Borden is reflected in, among other things, the different ways in which they organize the illusion: Borden uses his twin brother to replace him, while Angier does it with the help of true scientific wizardry (he really is redoubled). There is a celebration of the aristocratic ethic of sacrifice (against cheap lower-class trickery) at work here: for the sake of his art, Angier undergoes the terrible pain of drowning during each performance. Therein resides Angier's revenge: Borden thinks that only he is ready to truly suffer to become great (when he loses some fingers on his hand, his twin brother also cuts off the same fingers to remain indiscernible from him, etc.); however, at the end, he is forced to admit that beneath Angier's corrupted-aristocrat attitude there is a much more terrible sacrifice―each performance is paid for with a suicide.

Early in the film, when a magician performs a trick with a small bird which disappears in a cage on the table, a small boy in the audience starts to cry, claiming that the bird has been killed. The magician approaches him and finishes the trick, gently producing a live bird out of his hand―but the boy is not satisfied, insisting that this must be another bird, the dead one's brother. After the show, we see the magician in a room behind the stage, bringing in a flattened cage and throwing a squashed bird into a trash bin―the boy was indeed correct. The film describes the three stages of a magic performance: the setup, or the "pledge," where the magician shows the audience something that appears ordinary but is probably not, making use of misdirection; the "turn," where the magician makes the ordinary act extraordinary; and the "prestige," where the effect of the illusion is produced. Is not this triple movement the Hegelian triad at its purest? The thesis (pledge), its catastrophic negation (turn), and the magical resolution of the catastrophe (prestige)? The catch, as Hegel was well aware, is that in order for the miracle of the "prestige" to occur, somewhere there must be a squashed bird―in The Prestige, it is Angier's drowned body.

We should thus have no qualms about admitting that there is something of the "cheap magician" about Hegel, in his trick of synthesis, of Aufhebung. Ultimately, there are only two ways to account for this trick, like the two versions of the vulgar bad news/good news medical joke: (1) the good news is good, but it concerns another subject ("The bad news is that you have a terminal cancer and will die in a month. The good news is: you see that beautiful nurse over there? I've been trying to get her into bed for months; finally, yesterday, she said yes and we made love the whole night like crazy …"); (2) the good news is bad news for the subject, but from a different perspective ("The bad news is you have severe Alzheimer's. The good news is: you have Alzheimer's, so you will have forgotten the bad news by the time you get home"). The true Hegelian "synthesis" is the synthesis of these two options: the good news is the bad news itself―but in order for us to see that, we have to shift to a different agent (from the bird which dies to the one which replaces it; from the cancer-ridden patient to the happy doctor, from Christ as individual to the community of believers). In other words, the dead bird remains dead, it really dies; likewise in the case of Christ, who is reborn as another subject, as the Holy Ghost.

We are dealing here with jokes in which we arrive at the final line only through a dialogic undermining of a preceding position, an undermining which unexpectedly involves our subjective standpoint.44 The basic idea of Hegel's dialectic is, on the contrary, that this dialogic process is not just subjective but is inscribed in the reality of the "Thing itself": the tension which is reflected in the dialogue is constitutive of reality―this is how Hegel's thesis that the path to truth is part of truth itself should be conceived. Even the remark allegedly made by Brecht in Sidney Hook's apartment, apropos the accused at the Moscow show trials in the 1930s, can be recast in these terms:

In 1935 Brecht visited Hook's house in Manhattan. When Hook raised the question of the recent arrest and imprisonment of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and thousands of others, Brecht is alleged by Hook to have replied calmly in German: "The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot." As Hook tells it, he then handed Brecht his hat and coat. Brecht left "with a sickly smile."45

Brecht's statement is thoroughly ambiguous―it can be read as a standard assertion of radical Stalinism (your very insistence on your innocence, your refusal to sacrifice yourself for the Cause, bears witness to your guilt, which resides in giving preference to your individual interests over the larger interests of the Party), or it can be read in a radically anti-Stalinist manner: if they were in a position to plot the assassination of Stalin and his entourage, and were "innocent" (that is, did not grasp the opportunity), then they really deserve to die for having failed to rid us of Stalin. The true guilt of the accused is thus that, instead of rejecting the very ideological framework of Stalinism and ruthlessly acting against Stalin, they narcissistically fell in love with their victimization and either protested their innocence or became fascinated by the ultimate sacrifice they could make for the Party by confessing to non-existent crimes. The properly dialectical way to grasp the imbrication of these two meanings would be to start with the first reading, followed by the common-sense moralistic reaction to Brecht: "But how can you say something so ruthless? Surely such a logic, demanding a blind self-sacrifice to satisfy the accusatory whims of the Leader, can only function within a terrifying and criminal totalitarian system―it is surely the duty of every ethical subject to fight such a system with all means possible, including the physical removal, murder if necessary, of the totalitarian leadership?" "Yes, so you can see how, if the accused were innocent, they deserve all the more to be shot―they effectively were in a position to rid us of Stalin and his henchmen, and missed this unique opportunity to spare humanity from his terrible crimes!"46

The same ambiguity can be discerned in the infamous statement attributed to various Nazi leaders: "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my pistol." The Nazi's intended meaning was probably that he was ready to defend high German culture with arms, if necessary, against the Jews and other barbarians; the true meaning, however, is that he is himself a barbarian who explodes with violence when confronted with true works of culture.47

Hegel's version of "infinite judgment" is thus different from Kant's―there is a negation of negation (of the Rabinovitch type) at work in its most famous example, "the Spirit is a bone": (1) the Spirit is a bone; (2) this is nonsense, there is an absolute contradiction between these two terms; (3) well, the Spirit is this contradiction. One can see the opposition between this procedure and the paradox of identity as identified by Hegel, where the very occurrence of an identical term causes surprise: A rose is … (we expect a predicate, but get) a rose. The Hegelian move is to treat this surprise/paradox as constitutive of identity: there is surprise (and a temporal logic) in both cases, but of a different kind.48

This in turn means that Heidegger's notion of death as the ultimate point of impossibility that cannot be dialectically "sublated" or included in a higher totality is no argument against Hegel: the Hegelian response is just to shift the perspective in order to recognize this negativity itself in its positive aspect, as a condition of possibility: what appears as the ultimate obstacle is in itself a positive condition of possibility, for the universe of meaning can only arise against the background of its annihilation. Furthermore, the properly dialectical reversal is not only the reversal of negative into positive, of the condition of impossibility into the condition of possibility, of obstacle into enabling agency, but, simultaneously, the reversal of transcendence into immanence, and the inclusion of the subject of enunciation in the enunciated content.

This reversal-into-itself―the shift in the status of what-is-at-stake from sign to Thing, from predicate to subject―is crucial for the dialectical process: what first appears as a mere sign (property, reflection, distortion) of the Thing turns out to be the Thing itself. If the Idea cannot adequately represent itself, if its representation is distorted or deficient, then this simultaneously signals a limitation or deficiency of the Idea itself. Furthermore, not only does the universal Idea always appear in a distorted or displaced way; this Idea is nothing but the distortion or displacement, the self-inadequacy, of the particular with regard to itself.

This brings us to the most radical dimension of the (in)famous "identity of opposites": insofar as "contradiction" is the Hegelian name for the Real, this means that the Real is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is impossible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access; the Thing which eludes our grasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. Is this not how trauma works? On the one hand, trauma is the X that the subject is unable to approach directly, that can only be perceived in a distorted way, through some kind of protective lens, that can only be alluded to in a roundabout way, never confronted head on, etc. On the other hand, however, for a subject who has experienced a traumatic shock, the trauma also functions as the very opposite of the inaccessible Thing-in-itself which eludes its grasp: it functions as something here, in me, that distorts and disturbs my perspective on reality, twisting it in a particular way. A woman who has been brutally raped and humiliated not only cannot directly recall the rape scene; the repressed memory of the rape also distorts her approach to reality, making her oversensitive to some of its aspects, ignoring others and so on.

And is not this shift structurally homologous to that of the Rabinovitch joke quoted above? The very problem (obstacle) retroactively appears as its own solution, since what prevents us from directly accessing the Thing is the Thing itself. The only change here lies in the shift of perspective. In exactly the same way, the final twist in Kafka's parable "Before the Law" relies on a mere shift of perspective: the man from the country, confronted with the door of the Law that prevents his access to the terrifying Thing (the Law), is told that from the very beginning the door was there only for him, in other words that he was from the beginning included in the Law―the Law was not just the Thing which fascinated his gaze, it always already returned his gaze. And, to go a step further, the gap that separates me from God is the gap that separates God from himself: the distance is not abolished (I do not miraculously rejoin God), it is merely displaced into God himself.

Yet another way to articulate this key moment is in the more traditional terms of the dialectical tension between the epistemological and the ontological dimensions: the gap that separates the knowing subject from the known object is inherent to the object itself, my knowing a thing is part of a process internal to the thing, which is why the standard epistemological problem should be turned around: not "How is my knowledge of the thing possible?" but "How is it that knowledge appears within the thing as a mode of the thing's relating to itself?" With regard to God, the problem is not "How can I know God?" but "How and why does God generate in humans knowledge about himself?" that is, how does my knowledge (and ignorance) of God function within God himself? Our alienation from God is God's self-alienation. When we lose God, it is not only that God abandons us, God abandons himself.


Hegelian reflection is thus the opposite of the transcendental approach which reflexively regresses from the object to its subjective conditions of possibility. Even the philosophy of the "linguistic turn" remains at this transcendental level, addressing the transcendental dimension of language―that is, how the horizon of possible meaning sustained by language in which we dwell functions as the transcendental condition of possibility for all our experience of reality. Here, then, "the signified falls into the signifier," for the signified is an effect of the signifier, it is accounted for in the terms of the symbolic order as its transcendentally constitutive condition.49 What dialectical reflection adds to this is another reflexive twist which grounds the very subjective-transcendental site of enunciation in the "self-movement" of the Thing itself: here, "the signifier falls into the signified," the act of enunciation falls into the enunciated, the sign of the thing falls into the Thing itself. When asked to explain the meaning of a term X to someone who, while more or less fluent in our language, does not know this specific term, we invariably respond with a potentially endless series of synonyms, paraphrases, or descriptions of situations in which the use of the term would be appropriate. In this way, through the very failure of our endeavor, we circumscribe an empty place, the place of the right word―precisely the word we are trying to explain. So at some point, after our paraphrases fail, all we can do is to conclude in exasperation: "In short, it is X!" Far from functioning as a simple admission of failure, however, this can effectively generate an insight―if, that is, through our failed paraphrases we have successfully circumscribed the place of the term to be explained. At this point, as Lacan would have put it, "the signifier falls into the signified," the term becomes part of its own definition. It is a little bit like listening to old mono recordings: the very crackling sounds that filter and disturb the pure reproduction of the human voice generate an effect of authenticity, the impression that we are listening to (what was once) a real person singing, while the very perfection of modern recordings, with their stereo and other effects, strangely de-realize what we hear. This is why the "enlightened" New Ager who implores us to fully realize or express our true Self cannot but appear as its opposite―as a mechanical, depthless subject blindly repeating his or her mantra.

To recapitulate: dialectical reversal is more complex than it may appear; at its most radical, it is not only the reversal of a predicate (the reason against becomes the reason for), but the shift of the predicate itself into the position of the subject. This key feature of the Hegelian dialectic can be clarified by way of the well-known male-chauvinist notion of how, in contrast to man's firm self-identity, "the essence of woman is dispersed, elusive, displaced." The appropriate response here is to move from this claim that the essence of woman is forever dispersed to the more radical claim that this dispersion or displacement as such is the "essence of femininity." This is a shift which, once again, can be retold in terms of the Rabinovitch formula: "I have found the essence of femininity." "But one cannot find it, femininity is dispersed, displaced …" "Well, this dispersion is the essence of femininity …" One should again insist here on the irreducible character of this dialogical process: the fact that one cannot directly pass to the "essence of femininity," but must pass through the illusory assertion "I have found the essence of femininity" and its failure, is not only a necessity which affects our cognitive approach, but constitutes the Thing itself (the "essence of femininity"). And the "subject" is not just an example here, but the name for a formal structure: the subject "as such" is a subjectivized predicate; the subject is not only always already displaced, and so on, it is this displacement. What this means is, again, that the above-described dialogical structure is inscribed into the very being of subject: the subject aims at representing itself; this representation fails; the subject is this failure of its own representation.

The supreme case of this shift constitutive of the dimension of subjectivity is that of supposition. Lacan began with the notion of the analyst as the "subject supposed to know," which arises through transference (the analyst is the one supposed to know the meaning of the patient's symptoms). However, he soon realized that he was dealing with a more general structure of supposition, in which a figure of the Other is not only supposed to know, but can also believe, enjoy, cry, and laugh, or even not know for us (from Tibetan prayer mills to canned laughter). This structure of presupposition is not infinite: it is strictly limited, constrained by the four elements of the discourse. S1―the subject supposed to believe; S2―the subject supposed to know; a―the subject supposed to enjoy; and … what about $? Is it a "subject supposed to be a subject"? What would this mean? What if we read it as standing for the very structure of supposition: it is not only that the subject is supposed to have a quality, to do or undergo something (to know, to enjoy …)―the subject itself is a supposition, for the subject is never directly "given," as a positive substantial entity, we never directly encounter it, it is merely a flickering void "supposed" between the two signifiers. (We encounter here again the Hegelian passage from subject to predicate: from the subject supposed to … to the subject itself as a supposition.) That is to say, what, precisely, is a "subject"? Think of a proposition, a statement―how, when, does this statement become "subjectivized"? It becomes so when some reflexive feature inscribes into it the subjective attitude―in this precise sense, a signifier "represents the subject for another signifier." The subject is the absent X that has to be supposed in order to account for this reflexive twist, for this distortion. And Lacan pushes on here to the end: the subject is not only supposed by the external observer-listener of a signifying chain; it is in itself a supposition. The subject is inaccessible to itself as a Thing, in its noumenal identity, and, as such, it is forever haunted by itself as object: what are all Doppelgänger figures if not figures of myself as an object that haunts me? In other words, not only are others a supposition for me (I can only suppose their existence beneath the reflexive distortion of a signifying chain), I myself am no less a supposition for myself: something to be presumed (there must be an X that "I am," the "I or It or a Thing that thinks," as Kant put it) and never directly accessible. Hume's famous observation that, no matter how closely or deeply I look into myself, all I will find are specific ideas, particular mental states, perceptions, emotions, etc., never a "Self," misses the point: this non-accessibility of the subject to itself as an object is constitutive of being a "self."

One could even claim that, formally, this reversal from the subject supposed to … to the subject itself as a supposition defines subjectivity: substance appears in phenomena, while a subject is nothing but its own appearance. (And these formulae can be multiplied: the universal is nothing but the inadequacy, the non-identity, of the particular to/with itself; the essence is nothing but the inadequacy of the appearance to itself, and so on and so forth.) This does not mean that the subject is the stupid tautology of the Real ("things just are what they seem to be"), but, much more precisely, that the subject is nothing but its own appearing, the appearing reflected-into-itself 50―a paradoxical torsion in which a Thing starts to function as a substitute for itself. As Robert Pfaller observes apropos this substitution:

What is substituted can also appear itself, in a 1:1 scale, in the role of the substitute―there only must be some feature ensuring that it is not taken to be itself. Such a feature is provided for by the threshold which separates the place of what is substituting from what is being substituted―or symbolizes their detachment. Everything that appears in front of the threshold is then assumed to be the ersatz, as everything that lies behind it is taken to be what is being substituted.There are scores of examples of such concealments that are obtained not by miniaturization but only by means of clever localization. As Freud observed, the very acts that are forbidden by religion are practiced in the name of religion. In such cases―as, for instance, murder in the name of religion―religion also can do entirely without miniaturization. Those adamantly militant advocates of human life, for example, who oppose abortion, will not stop short of actually murdering clinic personnel. Radical right-wing opponents of male homosexuality in the USA act in a similar way. They organize so-called "gay bashings" in the course of which they beat up and finally rape gays. The ultimate homicidal or homosexual gratification of drives can therefore also be attained, if it only fulfils the condition of evoking the semblance of a counter-measure. What seems to be "opposition" then has the effect that the x to be fended off can appear itself and be taken for a non-x.51

What we encounter here yet again is the Hegelian "oppositional determination": in the figure of the gay-basher raping a gay man, the gay encounters himself in his oppositional determination; that is, tautology (self-identity) appears as the highest contradiction.52 In other words, the structure is again that of the Möbius band: if we progress far enough on one side, we reach our starting point again (a gay sex act), but on the other side of the band. Lewis Carroll was therefore right: a country can serve as its own map insofar as the model or map is the thing itself in its oppositional determination, that is, insofar as an invisible screen ensures that the thing is not taken to be itself. In this precise sense, the "primordial" difference is not between things themselves, also not between things and their signs, but between the thing and the void of an invisible screen which distorts our perception of the thing so that we do not take the thing for itself. The movement from things to their signs is not that of a replacement of the thing by its sign, but that of the thing itself becoming the sign of―not another thing, but―itself, the void at its very core.53

This paradox brings us to the relationship between man and Christ: the tautology "man is man" is to be read as a Hegelian infinite judgment, as the encounter of "man" with its oppositional determination, with its counterpart on the other side of the Möbius band. In the same way that, already in our everyday understanding, "the law is the law" means its opposite, the coincidence of law with arbitrary violence ("What can you do, even if it is unjust and arbitrary, the law is the law, you have to obey it!"), "man is man" signals the non-coincidence of man with man, the properly inhuman excess which disturbs its self-identity―and what, ultimately, is Christ but the name of this excess inherent to man, man's extimate kernel, the monstrous surplus which, following the unfortunate Pontius Pilatus, one of the few ethical heroes of the Bible (the other being Judas, of course), can only be designated as "ecce homo"?


What is the status of this in-human excess? In his attempt to describe the genesis of our search for meaning, Wolfram Hogrebe claims that the subject's relation to objectivity has to be grounded in intersubjectivity: "without a dark You [das dunkle Du"], we do not have a chance to begin developing objective relations with things."54 "Objectivity" can only arise as the notion of an X that remains the same under different subjective perspectives or descriptions―it is the result of such abstraction from subjective standpoints. What precedes it is the "mantic" animist experience of reality as meaningful, full of unknown meaning. It is not that I begin with the encounter with objects around me, and then notice how some of these objects have an inner life like me, so transfer onto them my inner life; on the contrary, the transference comes first, objectivization comes after.

Against this background, Hogrebe interprets popular-culture figures like vampires, zombies, aliens, and replicants as uncanny figures of intelligent beings deprived of emotions and of a horizon of meaning, lacking the searching-for-meaning attitude, properly "world-less" beings. As Markus Gabriel points out, there is a shift here from Romanticism, in which uncanny monstrous doubles stand for the "inhuman" abyss of the subject itself, to our own time in which replicants, etc., stand for worldless "thinking machines."55 But is there not an ambiguity present also in today's replicants or robots, from "terminators" onwards? Are they not, beneath the appearance of desubjectivized "thinking machines," figures of the subject in its pure in-human state? Is not the alien or terminator today's image of the "dark I" beyond human empathy?

One of the strategies for taming this "dark I" is a kiss. Sándor Márai's Embers ends with a definition of the kiss as "an answer, a clumsy but tender answer to a question that eludes the power of language."56 This short definition effectively circumscribes the key dimension of a kiss: crucially, it is given by the mouth, the very organ of speech (and, in a full erotic kiss, also contacts the other's mouth), depriving it of its ability to talk, shutting it off. As such, the kiss is an answer to the "question that eludes the power of language," which is nothing other than what Lacan calls "Che vuoi?" (What do you want?), the question which concerns the abyss of the Other's desire, the abyss opened up by speech but for which every word fails. A kiss is a clumsy and desperate measure to pacify this abyss by way of closing off its source through a direct intervention into the bodily Real: "Shut up! Let my closeness to you close the gap which threatens to ruin our relationship!" This is the truth in the cliché about prostitutes who allow their customers to penetrate them but not to kiss them on the mouth―a signal that they do not want to surrender the abyss of their subjectivity to the closeness of a stranger.

Is the traumatic encounter with the "divine"―in the guise of a meaningless (or pre-meaning) Absolute which triggers, as a reaction, the search for meaning―effectively the primordial fact? Psychoanalysis provides a key insight here. Let us approach it through The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, an extraordinary short novel by Manohar Shyam Joshi, and one of the classics of twentieth-century Indian literature.57 Set in Delhi around 1960, the novel tells the story of Harihar Datt Twari (mockingly known as Hariya Hercules after the name of his bicycle, which contrasts with Hariya's utterly non-heroic nature), an infinitely patient, unmarried, middle-aged man who spends all his time attending to his blind, infirm, and chronically constipated old father, who was once a pillar of society. Hariya's care for his father includes regularly cleansing his rectum to clean out the dried excrement. One day, while visiting a relative, Hariya hears that there is a town called Goomalling in Australia; he hallucinates that his own double lives there. The word "Goomalling," a signifier of father's desire, thus disturbs Hariya's inner peace and triggers his perplexity, not only about his father but about all things sexual. Having up to now simply ignored sexuality, he becomes intrigued by how and why the sexual act brings pleasure, and tries to learn from his older female relatives all about it. When his father dies soon afterwards, Hariya inherits one of his most precious possessions, a trunk containing jewelry, pornographic pictures of group sex acts in which his father participated, and a letter from a Tibetan lama. The letter describes the curse brought by the father upon a Twari family when, in the mythic Himalayan town of Goomalling (the same name as the real Australian town!), he stole the trunk that belonged to the terrible deity of Goomalling. As a dutiful son, Hariya goes looking for Goomalling to return the trunk to the deity. After he mysteriously vanishes, members of his community back in Delhi compose a multitude of stories, some describing him as a self-sacrificing saint, others as a victim of manipulation and robbery. In spite (or, rather, because) of all the disgusting details, this novel is one of the most beautiful and touching stories about the rise of desire out of an encounter with what Jean Laplanche would have called an "enigmatic signifier," a signifier which condenses the mystery of the Other's desire. As we know from Freud and Lacan, the father is not simply a bearer of prohibition―the price he has to pay for occupying this place is that he himself gets prohibited, and what triggers Hariya's desire is this dark, prohibited side of the father. Furthermore, a similar self-reflexive reversal of subject into object affects Hariya himself: after he becomes perplexed by the mystery, he himself turns into an object of mystery, for his disappearance triggers a multitude of inconsistent narratives concerning his fate.

However, from a strict materialist standpoint, Laplanche's notion of the "enigmatic signifier" should be critically supplemented: it is not a primordial fact, an "original trauma" which sets the human animal on the path of subjectivization; it is, rather, a secondary phenomenon, a reaction to the primordial fact of the over-proximity of the other, of his or her intrusive presence or bodily-material too-much-ness. It is this intrusive presence which is then interpreted as an "enigma," as an obscure "message" from the other who "wants something" from me. In this sense, the "Neighbor" refers not primarily to the abyss of the Other's desire, the enigma of "Che vuoi?" of "What do you really want from me?" but to an intruder who is always and by definition too near. This is why for Hitler the Jew was a neighbor: no matter how far away the Jews were, they were always too close; no matter how many were killed, the remnants were always too strong.58 As usual, Chesterton made this point with utmost clarity: "The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."

There is a problem to be clarified here: no matter how intrusively one touches a dog or a cat, the intrusion will never be interpreted by it as an "enigmatic signifier"; which means that something, some radical change, must have already happened in a living being for it to experience something as an intrusion. It seems obvious that a violation is always a violation with regard to some presupposed norm. Should one then say that, in order for something to be experienced by the body as intrusion, a kind of primordial Ego already has to be constituted, implying a line of division between the Inside and the Outside? Is it then the homeostasis of the primordial Ego which is disturbed, derailed, by the intrusion of the (death) drive, so that the opposition between Ego and drive is the opposition between Life and Death? Which norm is violated in too-muchness? The properly Freudian materialist solution would be to turn this relationship around and to posit the paradox of an original excess, an excess "in itself" rather than in relation to a presupposed norm. The Freudian drive is just such an excess-in-itself: there is no "normal" drive. The formation of the Ego with its borderline between Inside (Ego) and Outside (non-Ego) is already a defense-formation, a reaction against the excess of the drive. In short, it is not the excess of the drive which violates the "norm" of the Ego, it is the "norm" (proper measure) itself which is a defense against the excess of the drive.

It is for this reason that intersubjectivity is not a primordial or "natural" state of human being. To find traces of a dimension "beyond intersubjectivity" in Hegel, one should look for them in the very place which is the central reference for the partisans of recognition: the famous chapter on servitude and domination from the Phenomenology. Malabou has noted perceptively that, in spite of the precise logical deduction of the plurality of subjects out of the notion of life, there is an irreducible scandal, something traumatic and unexpected, in the encounter with another subject, that is, in the fact that the subject (a self-consciousness) encounters outside itself, in front of it, another living being in the world which also claims to be a subject (a self-consciousness).59 As a subject, I am by definition alone, a singularity opposed to the entire world of things, a punctuality to which all the world appears, and no amount of phenomenological description of how I am always already "together-with" others can cover up the scandal of another such singularity existing in the world. In the guise of the living being in front of me who claims to be also a self-consciousness, infinity assumes a determinate form, and this coincidence of opposites (the infinity of self-relating consciousness is this particular living being) points towards the infinite judgment "the Spirit is a bone," which concludes the section on observing reason in the Phenomenology.

The source of this scandal is that self-consciousness breaks with the oscillation between attachment and detachment that characterizes the process of life: life is at the same time the life of the species which reproduces itself through the life and death of its members, and the life of each member. Each member's attachment is thus split, divided between an attachment to its own particular finite being and an attachment to its species (which means a detachment from its particular being). Once we enter Spirit proper, however, this dialectic of attachment and detachment which characterizes the life of a species radically changes: in the life of Spirit, a singularity interposes itself between the species and its individual members. This means that an individual can no longer be reduced to being a particular member of its species, subordinated to its higher universal interest: a spiritual individual ("self-consciousness") has the "infinite right" to universality, because his singular existence is not merely that of a member of the species―in it, the universality of the species becomes "for itself," assumes a determinate form. So when I encounter in front of me another self-consciousness, there is something in me (not simply my egotism, but something in the very notion of self-consciousness) which resists the reduction of both myself and the opposed self-consciousness to simple members of the human species: what makes the encounter shocking is that in it, two universalities meet where there is room only for one.60

In the original encounter, the Other is thus not simply another subject with whom I share the intersubjective space of recognition, but a traumatic Thing. This is why this excess cannot be properly counted: subjects are never 1 + 1 + 1…, there is always an objectal excess which adds itself to the series. We find an echo of this excess in those science-fiction or horror stories where strange things start to happen (murders, as a rule) among a group of people in an isolated place (a small island or spaceship, say) and everything points to something else being present―not another human, all of whom can be counted without ever grasping the excess, but an alien monster which is less than One but more than zero. (The psychoanalytic treatment recreates this scene: the analyst is not another subject, there is no face to face, s/he is an object which adds itself to the patient.) This excessive spectral object is, of course, a stand-in for the subject, the subject itself as object, the subject's impossible-real objectal counterpart.


The Freudian name for this excessive attachment to the objectal excess is the drive, which brings us to the key question: can Hegel think the drive? Hegel comes close to the Freudian drive in his elaboration of the notion of Force (towards the end of the chapter on Consciousness in the Phenomenology).61 The dialectic of the (substantial) Thing and its properties dissolves into the "unconditioned universal" beneath the flow of phenomena; this universal gives a positive form to the void at the heart of every Thing, the void that accounts for the One-ness of the Thing and that can only be accounted for by the Thing's name. "In itself," this void is already the subject, the universal dimension of subjectivity; however, it "is still an object of consciousness," "the result has to be given an objective significance for consciousness." Consciousness does not yet know that there is nothing behind the veil of appearances―nothing but what consciousness itself puts there. This feature captures the acephalous character of the drive: it is not "mine," the subject's, it is the very core of my being insisting "out there," as a partial object which is not me. This remaining split between consciousness and objective being has to be reflected into the object itself; it appears there in the guise of the distinction between form and content: the form of universality and its content, multiple particular "independent" elements. The two moments of this distinction, of course, are not fixed opposites, but are caught in an endless process of passing-into-each-other, in an oscillation typical of "spurious infinity":

the "matters" posited as independent directly pass over into their unity, and their unity directly unfolds its diversity, and this once again reduces itself to unity. But this movement is what is called Force. One of its moments, the dispersal of the independent "matters" in their [immediate] being, is the expression of Force; but Force, taken as that in which they have disappeared, is Force proper, Force which has been driven back into itself from its expression. First, however, the Force which is driven back into itself must express itself; and, secondly, it is still Force remaining within itself, just as much as it is expression in this self-containedness.62

Does this being "driven back into itself" of the Force already point towards the Freudo-Lacanian drive? Is the drive a Force in its being-driven-back-into-itself? Does the rhythm of Force point towards the repetitive movement of the drive? Hegel's Force is driven back into itself as the very power of annihilating the appearances in which it expresses itself; it is not yet the potentiality of virtual Power which retains its authority only as virtual, as the threat of its actualization. More precisely, the drive is not Power, but also not Force. It is a Force thwarted in its goal, finding its aim in repeating the very failure to reach its goal. The drive does not express itself, it stumbles upon an external element or obstacle; it does not pass from one to another of its manifestations or expressions, it gets stuck on one of them. It is not driven back to itself through overcoming or annihilating its expressions, but through not being able to do so.

The drive has nothing whatsoever to do with psychology: the death drive (and the drive as such is the death drive) is not a psychic (or biological) striving for death and destruction―as Lacan emphasizes repeatedly, the death drive is an ontological concept, and it is this properly ontological dimension of the death drive which is so difficult to think. Freud defined Trieb (drive) as a limit-concept situated between biology and psychology, or nature and culture―a natural force known only through its psychic representatives. But we should take a step further here and read Freud more radically: the drive is natural, but the natural thrown out of joint, distorted or deformed by culture; it is culture in its natural state. This is why the drive is a kind of imaginary focus, or meeting place, between psychoanalysis and cognitive brain sciences: the paradox of the self-propelling loop on which the entire Freudian edifice is based and which the brain sciences approach in metaphoric formulations, without being able to define it precisely. Due to this in-between status, the insistence of the drive is "immortal," an "undead" striving that insists beyond life and death. In the classic German poem about two naughty children, Wilhelm Busch's "Max und Moritz" (first published in 1865), the children continually act in a disgraceful way towards respected authorities, until finally they both fall into a wheat mill and come out cut up into tiny grains. But when the grains fall on the floor, they form into the shapes of the two boys:

Rickeracke! Rickeracke!
Geht die Mühle mit Geknacke.
Hier kann man sie noch erblicken,
Fein geschroten und in Stücken.

In the original illustration, the shapes are sneering obscenely, insisting in their evil even after death … (Adorno was right when he wrote that when one encounters a truly evil person, it is difficult to imagine that this person can ever die.) The formula of the drive is thus the same as Kant's formula of duty, "Du kannst, denn du sollst!" (You can, because you must!)―a deeply ambiguous formula that can be read in two ways which may appear to overlap, but are in fact very different: (1) no matter how hard or impossible the task appears, you simply have to do it!; (2) since you should do it, although you really cannot, you are forever condemned to feel guilty for not having done it. The first version is the formula of the unconditional drive which insists beyond life and death; the second is its superego perversion.

This obstinacy can also be embodied in a particular organ, like a fist or the feet, as in Hans Christian Andersen's "Red Shoes," the story of Karen, a poor little girl adopted by a rich old lady after her mother's death. Growing up vain, she buys a pair of red shoes and wears them to church, where she pays no attention to the service. When her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen deserts her, preferring to attend a party in her red shoes. But once she begins dancing, she cannot stop―the shoes take over: she cannot control them, they are stuck to her feet and continue to dance, through fields and meadows, come rain or shine, night and day. She cannot even attend her adoptive mother's funeral. An angel appears to her, condemning her to dance until she grows cold and pale, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen then asks the executioner to chop off her feet. He does so and gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church, but the chopped-off feet still wearing the red shoes dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking herself at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing shoes bar the way. Karen then goes to do service in the parsonage, and when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. As she sits alone at home and prays to God, it is as though the church comes home to her and her heart becomes so filled with peace and joy that it bursts. She dies, and her soul flies on rays of sunlight to heaven, where no one asks her about the red shoes.63

In his film The Red Shoes, Michael Powell transposed Andersen's fairy tale into a modern ballet-company setting, but with a strange twist: the dancing shoes bring death to the heroine (called Vicky) not because they enact her fidelity to her vocation, but because they push her towards the suicidal act of sabotaging her return to a dancing career. Towards the film's end, Vicky is torn between the charismatic-demoniac Lermontov, the director of the ballet company, and Julian, a young composer for whom she gave up her career. Lermontov convinces her to return to the company to dance in a revival of The Red Shoes, Julian's ballet based on Andersen's fairy tale. On the opening night, as she is preparing to perform, Julian appears in her dressing room to take her back with him. Lermontov arrives, and he and Julian contend for Vicky's soul. Torn between her love for Julian and her need to dance, she cannot decide what to do. Julian, realizing that he has lost her, leaves for the railway station, while Lermontov consoles Vicky: "Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before." However, while being escorted to the stage by her dresser, and wearing the red shoes, Vicky is suddenly seized by an irresistible impulse and runs out of the theater. Julian, on the platform at the train station, sees her and runs helplessly towards her. Vicky jumps from a balcony and falls in front of an approaching train. While lying on a stretcher, bloody and battered, Vicky asks Julian to remove the red shoes. Shaken by Vicky's death and broken in spirit, Lermontov appears before the audience to announce that "Miss Page is unable to dance tonight, nor indeed any other night." Nevertheless, the company performs The Red Shoes with a spotlight on the empty space where Vicky would have been.

This ending is deeply ambiguous with regard to the role of the shoes: did Vicky run out of the theater to join Julian against (the will of) the red shoes, and the shoes merely sabotaged the reunion of lovers by causing her deadly fall, or did the shoes also lead her to run away? The key to this ambiguity is provided by the difference between the drive and the Will: it is not that "drive" suggests an unfocused pressure or impulse, while "will" implies concentration and domination; for Freud, the "drive" is no less focused than the "will," it always has an object, the X onto which it is stuck and to which it repetitively returns, around which it circulates. The "drive" is in many ways almost a photographic negative of the "will": it is the push to eject its object, to lose it, to introduce a gap, not to overcome it. Thus, we could even say that the will is a counter-movement to the drive, an attempt to re-inscribe the "asubjectal" drive into the economy of the Ego as the agency of control and domination.

In the standard description of the circular process of alienation and re-appropriation, the subject loses itself in its otherness in order to re-appropriate its alienated substantial content; the drive is, at its most fundamental, this gesture of loss itself, not as externally imposed, but as "willed" by the subject. In every heroic narrative of recuperation, there is a moment of loss or betrayal which enables the later redemption: Adam and Eve had to fall in order for Christ to redeem us; Judas had to betray Christ in order for Christ to fulfill his mission, and so on. There is a perverse core that we always stumble upon in these narratives: was the Fall not a felix culpa? Did not God play a perverse game with humans, provoking the Fall so that he would then be able to display his mercy and love for fallen humanity? Was not Christ's betrayal by Judas a key moment that enabled humanity's redemption through Christ's crucifixion, that is, an act that had to happen and that was clearly, if ambiguously, willed by Christ? This negative act is the manifestation of the drive at its purest.

This, perhaps, is what Nietzsche had in mind when he insisted that the Will was unconditional, a matter of willing it all (the idea underlying the Eternal Return of the Same): we should also will, fully assume as what we wanted, the dirty work that we prefer to leave to others in order to enjoy the result while hypocritically condemning the way it was obtained. The pure Will to Will means that Christ willed Judas to betray him, that God willed Adam and Eve to fall. On the other hand, we should also avoid the perverse temptation of willing the Fall in order to cast oneself as the Savior, like the nanny from Patricia Highsmith's very first short story "The Heroine," who sets the house on fire in order to be able to save the children from death and thus earn the love and respect of their parents. There lies the thin line that separates the drive from perversion: in the drive proper, the loss is willed as such, in itself, not on account of its instrumentalization.

One could thus venture the hypothesis that, if desire is as such, in its innermost essence, hysterical―that is, marked by the hysterical "this is not that"―then the drive is as such (almost) perverse. This is where Lacan's reading of Antigone as exemplifying the ethics of desire ("do not give way on your desire") should be corrected. In his écrit "Subversion of the Subject and Dialectics of Desire," Lacan proposes $-D as the formula of the drive: instead of moving beyond demand to its gaps, to what is "in demand more than demand," the drive insists on the literality of the demand―which is exactly what Antigone does: her unconditional demand is for the proper symbolic burial of her brother, and she insists on it up to pereat mundus. Whatever she is, she is not hysterical: she wants what she wants literally. As such, her act is beyond the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious, and also beyond any figure of the big Other, inclusive of the eternal unwritten Laws―it is an act of abyssal freedom and, as such, political. Lacan proposes as the true formula of atheism "God is unconscious": "God could be unconscious. The hypothesis of the unconsciousness of God reflects the hypothesis that knowledge is not gifted with reflexivity of consciousness."64 How, precisely, are we to grasp this ambiguous formula? Is it that God is our unconscious (unconscious for us, operating as our "unknown knowns," as the "unconscious prejudices" or magical beliefs which determine our activity), or is it that God in himself "has" an unconscious, that his activity and knowledge are not transparent to himself? Does not the tradition from Boehme to Schelling point in this second, more radical, direction? Insofar as deus sive natura, the encompassing universe of reality, is "unconscious," and insofar as the Freudian unconscious belongs to the pre-ontological level, this leads us to the conclusion that reality is in itself not fully ontologically constituted, non-All.65 Furthermore, should we not read the thesis "God is the unconscious" together with the thesis "the unconscious is politics"? "I am not even saying 'politics is the unconscious,' but only 'the unconscious is politics'."66 The difference is crucial here. In the first case, the unconscious is elevated into the "big Other" which exists: it is posited as a substance which really dominates and regulates political activity, in the sense of "the true mobilizers of our political activity are not ideology or interests, but unconscious libidinal motivations." In the second case, the big Other itself loses its substantial character, it is no longer "the Unconscious," it changes into a fragile inconsistent field overdetermined by political struggles.


It is along these lines that we can discern the contours of the theologico-political in Lacan: the political nature of the unconscious means that it is not an underlying deeper force secretly governing what appear as contingencies, expressing itself through them: contingencies are irreducible, primary, they really are contingencies, and the unconscious is strictly parasitic, opportunistically exploiting unexpected contingencies to deliver its message. Freud is here radically opposed to that Jungian New Age obscurantism for which, precisely, "there are no accidents," and everything has a deeper meaning―therein resides the difference between idealism and materialism (and, unexpectedly, Hegel is here on the side of materialism: for him, speculative meaning articulates itself by way of exploiting the contingent ambiguities or double meanings of our ordinary language). This is why the Lacanian "de-centered subject" does not imply the kind of de-centering usually associated with psychoanalysis: "there is something in me more than myself, some foreign power which runs the show, so that I am not responsible for my acts …" If anything, Lacan insists on the subject's total responsibility: I am responsible even for acts and decisions of which I am not aware.

Apropos the fear that the brain sciences will eventually demonstrate that humans are in reality merely neuro-biological mechanisms, that there is "nobody home" beneath the surface of our phenomenal (self-)experience, one should fully accept this fear and avoid the primordial idealist lure which tempts us to substantialize our consciousness in some determinate component of reality (the temptation to which David Chalmers succumbed in an exemplary way). There effectively is nothing "beneath" or "behind," since consciousness is entirely phenomenal: the moment one brackets the phenomenal level of (self-)awareness and limits oneself to "reality," consciousness by definition disappears. It is as if one were to take a close look at a rainbow in order to locate some mysterious X in reality that corresponds to "rainbow in itself." Consciousness thus confronts us with the hard task of grasping the effectiveness, the (quasi-)causal power, of the appearance as such―and the Freudian unconscious should also be understood along these lines: not as a substance behind the appearances of consciousness, but as itself a mode of appearing. In other words, the term "unconscious" must be understood in terms of the Kantian infinite judgment rather than negative judgment: it is not that what it designates "is not conscious," it is rather that what it designates "is unconscious." This is what differentiates the Freudian unconscious from the neuronal unconscious of the material processes going on in our brain when we think: the neuronal unconscious is merely not conscious, while the Freudian unconscious is like the "undead," it is inherent to the psyche.

Here the Freudian hypothesis of the unconscious confronts us with the limits of any torture or truth serum procedure designed to extract from the subject his true position, "what he really thinks." A truth serum may get results if there is an ultimate truth the subject is trying to conceal―it may work if we are dealing with facts the subject knows and is trying to hide―but what if the subject is radically divided? For example, what if I pretend to believe in God, while sincerely thinking that there is no God, but this sincere conviction of mine is itself mistaken, and the truth lies in the external rituals I follow? In other words, what if I believe more than I believe I believe? Or, what if, while loving a person, I hate loving her―what would the truth serum make me say?

We can see from this last example that the division of the subject is not to be taken as a simple separation into two parts where "the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing." The division rather relies on a kind of reflexivity: when I hate to love someone, my love is reflexively mediated by hatred. Pippin indicates this reflexivity when he provides a concise definition of what Hegel means by "spiritual" being, that is, of how the subject is a "spiritual" entity: "The subject 'taking itself' to be a certain way is the 'object' to be such a way."67 Spirit means that a human being, in its specific being-human, ultimately is what it "takes itself to be." The key problem, of course, is how, exactly, we are to understand this "taking oneself." Perhaps Pippin all too quickly reduces it to a "normative" dimension: "taking myself to be a father" means that a behavior which follows certain norms (taking care of and educating my children, etc.) is expected of me. But is it not more appropriate to conceive this "taking as" as the act of assuming a certain symbolic identity (or title) conferred upon me, as the "symbolic registration" of my identity? A "father" is someone who takes himself (and is taken by others) as a father; normative demands or expectations are here secondary: even if I do not meet or follow them, I am still a father, just a "bad father," one who fails to act the way his title obliges him to act. In other words, for the normative dimension to be operative, the "big Other"―the scene of symbolic inscriptions and actions different from my immediate physical or psychic identity―already has to be in place, and for Lacan, it is this reflexive "giving account," the inscription of what a subject does in the symbolic texture, which is the proper locus of the unconscious.

There is thus a reflexivity inscribed into the very heart of psychoanalysis. What Pippin fails to take into account is how the Freudian unconscious is not raw stuff to be "mediated," reflexively appropriated, by the subject, but the very site of this reflective inscription. No wonder, then, that in his critical remarks on psychoanalysis Pippin reduces it to yet another mode of the "substantial" determination of the subject which misses the Kantian-Hegelian dimension of reflexivity that sustains the subject's autonomy and self-responsibility: as a subject, I cannot refer to the unconscious that determines me as a direct motivation―if unconscious motives effectively determine me as an autonomous subject, I should be the one who freely endorses the force of such motifs, who accepts them as motives―in short, every reference to the irresistible force of such motives has to involve a minimum of what Sartre called mauvaise foi. What if, however, it is Pippin himself who misses a crucial homology between the reflexivity inscribed into the very heart of Kantian-Hegelian subjectivity and the "reflexivity" of desire elaborated in detail by Lacan? What we have in mind here with regard to Kant is the so-called "incorporation thesis," the inextricable normativity of even the most elementary perceptions: even when I merely state the obvious, making the most basic statement of fact, "a table is there in front of me," I am not purely passive, I also declare a fact, I reflectively signal that I uphold this statement. This, however, is exactly what Lacan has in mind when he insists that, in every statement, the subject's position of enunciation is inscribed: when I state: "I wear stone-washed jeans," my statement always also renders how I relate to this fact (I want to appear as having a down-to-earth attitude, or following a fashion …). This inherent reflexive moment of "declaration" (the fact that every communication of a content always simultaneously "declares itself" as such) is what Heidegger designated as the "as such" that specifies the properly human dimension: an animal perceives a stone, but it does not perceive this stone "as such." This is the "reflexivity" of the signifier: every utterance not only transmits some content, but, simultaneously, renders how the subject relates to this content (in the terms of German Idealism, every consciousness is always already self-consciousness).68

Pippin is sympathetic to Manfred Frank's rejection of "neostructuralism" as unable to account for subjectivity or meaning, but critical of Frank's version of pre-reflexive self-acquaintance as a crucial dimension of subjectivity. Pippin sees this dimension in Kantian-Hegelian reflexivity/autonomy/self-responsibility, but what he fails to see is how this Kantian reflexivity opens up a space for the Lacanian subject of the unconscious.69 The Freudian "unconscious" is inscribed into this very reflexivity; take, for example, someone I "love to hate," such as a villain in a Hitchcock film: consciously, I just hate his guts, yet unconsciously I (do not love him, but) love to hate him; that is, what is unconscious here is the way I reflexively relate to my conscious attitude. (Or take the opposite case of someone I "hate to love"―like the hero in a film noir who cannot help loving the evil femme fatale but hates himself for loving her.) This is what Lacan means when he says that man's desire is always a desire to desire: in an exact formal replica of Kantian reflexivity, I never simply and directly desire an object, I always reflexively relate to this desire―I can desire to desire it, I can hate to desire it, I can be indifferent to this desire of mine, just tolerating it neutrally. The philosophical consequence of this reflexivity of desire is crucial: it tells us how the opposition between the conscious and the unconscious is related to the opposition between consciousness and self-consciousness: the unconscious is not some kind of pre-reflexive, pre-thetic, primitive substrate later elaborated upon by conscious reflexivity; quite the contrary, what is most radically "unconscious" in a subject is his self-consciousness itself, the way he reflexively relates to his conscious attitudes. The Freudian subject is thus identical to the Cartesian cogito, or, more precisely, to its later elaboration in Kantian-Hegelian self-consciousness.

During a recent multi-lingual public debate in Spain, Gianni Vattimo's remarks were by mistake translated back to him in English, to which he mockingly replied: "I don't need a translator to understand myself!" The Freudian divided subject is someone who, precisely, does need a translator to understand him or herself―which is exactly the role the psychoanalyst plays for them. There is a joke which tells us more about what Lacan means with regard to the "divided subject" than pages and pages of theoretical elaboration (though, in order to understand what it tells us, of course we need pages and pages of theoretical elaboration …): Two men, having had a drink or two, go to the theater, where they become thoroughly bored with the play. One of them feels an urgent need to urinate, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet: "I think I saw one down the corridor outside." The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no WC; wandering ever further into the recesses of the theater, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After copiously urinating into it and returning to his seat, his friend says to him: "What a pity! You missed the best part. Some fellow just walked on stage and pissed in that plant pot!"70 The subject necessarily misses its own act, it is never there to see its own appearance on the stage, its own intervention is the blind spot of its gaze.

What, then, divides the subject? Lacan's answer is simple and radical: its (symbolic) identity itself―prior to being divided between different psychic spheres, the subject is divided between the void of its cogito (the elusively punctual pure subject of enunciation) and the symbolic features which identify it in or for the big Other (the signifier which represents it for other signifiers). In Agnieszka Holland's Europa, Europa, the hero (a young German Jew who passes as an Aryan and fights in the Wehrmacht in Russia) asks a fellow soldier who had been an actor prior to the war: "Is it hard to play someone else?" The actor answers: "It's much easier than playing oneself." We encounter this otherness at its purest when we experience the other as a neighbor: as the impenetrable abyss beyond any symbolic identity. When a person I have known for a long time does something totally unexpected, disturbingly evil, so that I have to ask myself, "Did I really ever know him?" does he not effectively become "another person with the same name"?

One strategy for coping with this gap that separates me from my name is to add another (secret) name designed to capture the core of my being which eludes my public name. In a German film about high-school delinquency, a gang member says to his apprentice: "My name is Jack. But you can call me Jack." A nice play with tautology: in the closed gang universe, the norm is that one is only allowed to call the boss by his nickname: "My name is Jack, but you can call me Jacko!"―the pseudo-intimacy of this invitation to use the nickname implies an injunction to accept and participate in the relations of domination and servitude that characterize the gang universe. The permission to address the boss directly by his proper name is thus the highest privilege. Imagine God telling you, "My name is God, but you can call me God!"―something definitely much more frightening than "My name is God, but you can call me the Old One in the Sky."


1 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink, New York: W. W. Norton & Company 2006, p. 264.

2 If, measured by today's standards, this goal of uniting Hegel and Heidegger cannot but appear blatantly inconsistent, one should remember the crucial role of Alexandre Kojève in Lacan's development―Lacan referred to Kojève as his maître (the only other maître being the psychiatrist Clérambault). Kojève's central aim was precisely to bring together Hegel and Heidegger, i.e., to read Hegel's motifs of negativity and, exemplarily, the struggle-to-death between the (future) Master and Slave, through Heidegger's topic of being-towards-death.

3 Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, p. 242. Significantly, these paragraphs were rewritten for Écrits―it would be interesting to analyze in detail how, in his rewriting of the rapport for publication in 1966, Lacan desperately tried to erase (or, at least, dilute) the traces of his Hegelianism.

4 Ibid., p. 247.

5 G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 3: The Consummate Religion, trans. R. F. Brown, P. C. Hodgson, and J. M. Stewart, Berkeley: University of California Press 1987, p. 188.

6 Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, p. 242.

7 Ibid., p. 258.

8 G. W. F. Hegel, Jenaer Realphilosophie, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 1969, p. 199. Incidentally, the text goes on: "Through cunning, the willing becomes feminine …"―the "feminine passivity" is thus for Hegel not inferior to man's, but superior to it: it is a passivity that lets the (male) other undermine itself.

9 Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, p. 341.

10 Jacques Lacan, Écrits, Paris: Seuil 1966, pp. 348–9.

11 Jacques Lacan, "Improvisation: désir de mort, rêve et réveil," from notes taken by Catherine Millot in 1974, published in L'âne 3 (1981).

12 Of course, it would be easy to unite the two opposed theses: language itself makes us "mortal," it makes us beings that relate to death as their innermost (im)possibility, so that it itself opens up the gap against which it protects us―in a strict homology with the objet a which is, for Lacan, at the same time the void and what fills in the void.

13 François Balmès, Dieu, le sexe et la vérité, Ramonville Saint-Agne: Érès 2007, p. 213.

14 G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, Vol. 1, Leipzig: Philipp Reclam 1971, p. 581.

15 G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 288.

16 I owe this insight to Mladen Dolar, Prozopopeja, Ljubljana: Analecta 2006, p. 186.

17 Ibid., pp. 214–15.

18 We encounter prosopopoeia in the guise of lacrimae rerum quite literally at the very end of part one of Kieslowski's Decalogue, when the father whose small son has just drowned while skating on a frozen lake goes to an empty church to vent his despair. In an impotent outburst of destructive rage, he knocks over the altar, causing the burning candles to fall; the wax from the overturned candles drips down a painting of the Virgin Mary, creating an image of tears. This "answer of the Real," the sign of the divine compassion for the hero's misery, only takes place when he reaches the depth of utmost despair, rejecting divinity itself―following the steps of Christ, one is united with God only in the experience of utter abandonment by him. Significantly, the melting wax is the last link in the chain of metonymic displacements of the motif of melting down: first, the frozen milk melts; then, the ice that covers the lake melts, causing the tragedy; finally, the wax melts―is this the final answer of the Real, the proof that we are not alone, that "someone is out there," or just another stupid coincidence? Whatever our reading, the effect of prosopopoeia is here, the Thing itself cries on our behalf.

19 The standard argument against cyberspace is that we can always step out of it and re-enter the game at will, in contrast to real life in which we are stuck, with no space to withdraw to. The lesson of Buddhism (and the reason it comes close to the notion of reality itself as a virtual fantasy space) is precisely that we can withdraw from reality itself, since the very notion of firm reality is an illusion―we can withdraw not into another reality, but into the primordial Void itself.

20 And then there is the third, postmodern, temptation, the most dangerous of all: the claim that there is no site of truth, that there are only layers of prosopopoeiae like the layers of an onion, that every truth which speaks through a mask in prosopopoeia is already another prosopopoeia.

21 Again, one should note a shift in Lacan: while for the Lacan of the 1950s the unconscious is the "discourse of the Other," the moment he introduces the key notion of the "barred Other" and draws out its consequences, the unconscious turns into the discourse that registers the gaps and failures of the Other.

22 Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent, London: Verso Books 2003, p. 246.

23 Robert Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005, p. 78.

24 Joseph de Maistre, Éclaircissement sur les sacrifices, Paris: L'Herne 2009, p. 29: "Il faut donc toujours partir d'une vérité pour enseigner une erreur."

25 Another case of lying in the guise of truth: a corrupt philosophy professor from my youth in Slovenia openly admitted his conformism, saying with a disarming smile: "I am scum, I know it, so what?" The lie of such an admission resides in the gap between the enunciated content and its subjective position of enunciation: by way of admitting his corruption openly, did he not adopt an honest position which somehow redeemed him from corruption? Not at all: the appropriate response is to paraphrase the old Jewish joke quoted by Freud: "If you are really scum, why are you telling us that you are scum?" Or, a more aggressive version: "You say that you are scum, but this will not fool us―you really are scum!"―in short: "Don't lie to us by telling the truth―you are scum!"

26 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, Livre I: Les écrits techniques de Freud, Paris: Seuil 1975, p. 289.

27 Alain Badiou, Théorie de la contradiction, Paris: Maspero 1975, p. 86.

28 Lacan, Écrits, p. 194.

29 Ibid., p. 340.

30 Ibid., p. 341.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., p. 342.

33 Insofar as a symptom is inherently related to its interpretation, i.e., insofar as it functions, somewhat like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, as an attempt to take into account and answer in advance its possible interpretations, it has the intricate structure of a temporal loop: a symptom is a purely reflexive entity, a pre-emptive reaction to its own future effects.

34 What then is a man for a woman? A catastrophe, as Lacan conjectures? What if, bearing in mind the couple symptom/fantasy, man is a fantasy of a woman? Does Lacan not point in this direction when he claims that don Juan is a feminine fantasy? Both woman and man, not only woman, are thus co-dependent on each other, like Escher's two hands drawing each other. The trap to be avoided here is to conceive this relationship as being somehow complementary―as if, once a man finds his symptom in a woman and the same woman her fantasy embodied in a man, there finally is a kind of sexual relationship. We must bear in mind that fantasy and symptom are structurally incompatible.

35 However, Hitchcock's discarding of Herrmann's score cannot simply be dismissed as a concession to Hollywood commercial pressure. In the DVD edition of Torn Curtain, one can also watch some scenes accompanied with the Herrmann score, among them the Gromek murder. In the released version, this scene has no musical accompaniment, all we hear are the occasional grunts and groans which render the oppressive real presence of the painfully prolonged activity of trying to kill Gromek much more efficiently than would Herrmann's standard score of brassy Wagnerian ostinati!

36 Which accounts for the clear presence of the motif of the "Cunning of Reason" in Marx's theoretical framework; for example, remarking on the consequences of English colonial rule in India, Marx claimed that, in spite of all its destructive effects upon Indian society, colonization would push India into modernity.

37 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson, New York: HarperCollins 2008, p. 231.

38 Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, p. 64.

39 Ibid., p. 67.

40 Here we touch on the topic of Heidegger and psychiatric clinics: what about that withdrawal from engagement which is not death but the psychotic breakdown of a living human being? What about the possibility of "living in death," of vegetating with no care, like the Muselmannen in the Nazi camps?

41 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 56.

42 As quoted in Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, p. 77, modified from the translation in Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 19.

43 Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, pp. 77–8.

44 Agamben is right in pointing out the ambiguity of the apocalyptic-messianic "time that remains" as the time to end time: when we dwell in it, what appears to us as the slowing down of the final demise of the (rule of) Law, as the endless deferral of this final point, is retroactively revealed as the very anarchic state of freedom we were waiting for. In a properly Hegelian twist, the protracted deferral that bars full access to the Thing is already the Thing itself―the structure of this unique différance is thus yet again that of the Rabinovitch joke: "The arrival of full parousia is endlessly postponed …" "But this postponement is the parousia we strive for."

45 David Caute, The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003, p. 299.

46 Although the same reversal also works in the opposite direction. Recently in Slovenia, the public prosecutor started an action against an old communist functionary involved in the show trials and mass killings of members of the Slovene anti-communist units imprisoned immediately after the end of World War II. Not long after the prosecution was announced, I happened to meet another unrepentant old communist cadre and asked him for a reaction; to my surprise, he told me that the accused functionary fully deserved the harshest punishment, and added: "Not for what he is accused of, of course, but for his true crime, decades later, of allowing the communists to lose power!"

47 This, of course, in no way elevates Brecht above ethico-political suspicion. The case against him was succinctly expressed by W. H. Auden: "To offer your art in vocal support of the Party is one thing. To do so and still keep a bolt-hole and nest-egg is quite another … From the moment of his espousal of Communism, Brecht stood on the sidelines, cheering on a party he most emphatically did not wish to join, recommending that others submit to a discipline which he himself refused" (quoted in Caute, The Dancer Defects, p. 300). So when Brecht, the GDR Staatsdichter with an Austrian passport and a Swiss bank account, wrote in his poem "In Dark Times" against poets who remain silent in times of oppression―"[later generations] won't say: the times were dark / Rather, why were these poets silent?"―one should indeed raise the question: "So why was he himself silent whenever the dark places of the USSR and the international Communist movement were concerned?" (ibid.) Furthermore, when Fredric Jameson (see his Brecht and Method, London: Verso Books 1998, p. 10) defends Brecht against the accusation that he relied heavily on anonymous collaborators, even copying from them the majority of some of his works, with the counter-argument that "these attacks depreciate politics altogether―as the action of collectives―in the name of the personal and of individual ownership," adding how, in this way, "the properly utopian features of Brecht's collective work, and of collective and collaborative work of all kinds, are occulted and repudiated," one cannot but take note of the oxymoron "Brecht's collective work"―a collective work which Brecht nonetheless, in a very pragmatic and totally non-utopian way, sold on the market as his own, resorting to all the finesse of "bourgeois" copyright law, and demanding high sums of money as befitting one who sells his "individual ownership."

48 An unexpected version of the Rabinovitch joke circulated in ex-Yugoslavia: an officer wants to educate a Gypsy soldier by teaching him poetry; so, in order to explain rhyme to him, he gives an example: "I play balalaika, I screw your mother" (the line rhymes in the original: Igram balalaiku, yebem tvoiu maiku.) The Gypsy answers: "Oh, I get it! Here's another one: I play balalaika, I screw your wife." The officer comments: "But this doesn't rhyme!" The Gypsy retorts: "No, it doesn't rhyme, but it is true." The catch is that, in Serb, this last line loosely rhymes (Nije rima, ali je istina), so that we do finally get a rhyme.

49 A brief note should be added here. The partisans of "discourse analysis" often rail against those who continue to emphasize the key structural role of the economic mode of production and its dynamics, raising the specter of "vulgar Marxism" (or, another popular catchword, "economic essentialism"): the insinuation is that such a view reduces language to a secondary factor, locating historical efficacy only in the "reality" of material production. There is, however, a symmetrical simplification which is no less "vulgar": that of proposing a direct parallel between language and production, i.e., of conceiving―in Paul de Man style―language itself as another mode of production, the "production of meaning." According to this approach, in parallel with the "reification" of productive labor in its result, the common-sense notion of speech as a mere expression of some pre-existing meaning also "reifies" meaning, ignoring how meaning is not only reflected in speech, but generated by it―it is the result of "signifying practice," as it was once fashionable to say. One should reject this approach as the worst example of non-dialectical formalism, involving a hypostasis of "production" into an abstract-universal notion encompassing economic and "symbolic" production as its two species, and neglecting their radically different status.

50 This is why the Kantian transcendental I, its pure apperception, is a purely formal function which is neither noumenal nor phenomenal―it is empty, no phenomenal intuition corresponds to it, since, if it were to appear to itself, its self-appearance would be the "Thing itself," i.e., the direct self-transparency of a noumenon. The parallel between the void of the transcendental subject ($) and the void of the transcendental object, the inaccessible X that causes our perceptions, is misleading here: the transcendental object is the void beyond phenomenal appearances, while the transcendental subject already appears as a void.

51 Robert Pfaller, "The Potential of Thresholds to Obstruct and to Facilitate: On the Operation of Displacement in Obsessional Neurosis and Perversion" (unpublished paper, 2002).

52 In a homologous way, the very excess of ecological catastrophism (the end of the world is nigh, etc.) functions as a defense, a way to obfuscate the true dangers. This is why the only appropriate reply to an ecologist trying to convince us of the impending threat is to suggest that the true target of his desperate argument is his own non-belief―in other words, our answer should be something like "Don't worry, the catastrophe is sure to come!"

53 For a more detailed account of this structure, see my The Puppet and the Dwarf, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2003.

54 Wolfram Hogrebe, Die Wirklichkeit des Denkens, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter 2007, p. 13.

55 Markus Gabriel, "The Mythological Being of Reflection," in Markus Gabriel and Slavoj Žižek, eds., Mythology, Madness, and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism, London: Continuum 2009.

56 Sándor Márai, Embers, London: Penguin Books 2003, p. 249.

57 Manohar Shyam Joshi, The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, New Delhi: Penguin Books 2009.

58 I owe this idea to Alenka Zupančič.

59 See Judith Butler and Catherine Malabou, Sois mon corps: Une lecture contemporaine de la domination et de la servitude chez Hegel, Paris: Bayard 2010.

60 The rather boring criticism of Hegel's starting point in the dialectic of servitude and domination (the struggle to the death between the future master and the future servant) is that Hegel cheats by silently ignoring the obvious radical solution: the two of them really fight to the death, i.e., until one of them is actually killed―the "critical" point being that since this result would have brought the dialectical process to a halt, the Hegelian struggle to death is not really fought without restraint, but presupposes a certain implicit symbolic pact that the result will not be death. But here, one cannot cheat and pretend to fight to the death knowing that nobody will die: the (future) master's readiness to die must be fully actual. The only solution is to accept that many struggles do end in death and deadlock, so that, in order for the historical process to be set in motion by the proper dialectic of servitude and domination, many individuals had to die a meaningless death which amounted to a pure expenditure, lost without trace in the dark past of (pre)history, as so many nameless skulls strewn across the long road of history, to paraphrase Hegel.

61 I owe this reference to Force to Benjamin Bliumis, NYU.

62 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 81.

63 Andersen himself located the origins of the story in an incident he witnessed as a small child―in a wonderful example of the self-destructive, uncompromising stance: His father was sent a piece of red silk by a rich customer, to make a pair of dancing slippers for her daughter. Using red leather along with the silk, the father worked very carefully on the shoes, only to have the rich lady tell him they were inadequate. She said he had done nothing but spoil her silk. "In that case," he said, "I may as well spoil my leather too," and cut up the shoes in front of her.

64 Balmès, Dieu, le sexe et la vérité, p. 53.

65 As Lacan points out in his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company 1998). See also Schelling's transposition of the distinction between Existence (ontologically fully-constituted reality) and the dark spectral pre-ontological Ground of Existence into God himself, so that we must distinguish God's existence from his chaotic pre-ontological "nature." The whole of late Schelling could be condensed into this reversal of deus sive natura: where Spinoza sees identity, synonymity, "God or nature," Schelling sees irreducible tension and struggle.

66 Lacan, seminar of May 10, 1967, in Le séminaire, Livre XIV: La logique du fantasme (unpublished).

67 Robert Pippin, Hegel's Practical Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008, p. 51.

68 This self-declaratory reflexivity is also discernible in regard to fame: people can be famous for this or that, but they can also be famous simply for being famous. Recall the phenomenon of Paris Hilton, an absolute nobody adored by the trashy media, who report on her every step. She is not famous for doing or being something special; the dialectical reversal in her case consists in the fact that the media report on her most banal behavior―jumping over a car in a crowded parking lot, eating a hamburger, shopping at a discount store―simply because she is a celebrity. Her ordinariness, vulgarity even, is directly transubstantiated into the feature of a celebrity.

69 See "On Not Being a Neo-Structuralist" in Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, pp. 168–85.

70 I owe this joke to Simon Critchley, who used it in a (very) critical review of a book of mine.